Tradition Vs. Technology in the Culinary Industry

Tradition versus Technology in the culinary industry

The culinary industry is constantly evolving. Innovative technologies expand the possibilities of commercial kitchens in new and exciting ways, whether that means providing a precision fry-cutter or offering a hands-free way to whip up a creamy latte. For chefs and restaurateurs alike, new culinary tech can translate to more varied menus, reduced cooking times, and a bolstered ROI.

However, as we outsource the fundamentals of cooking to machines, the tradition of handmade, work-intensive dishes is lost for the sake of efficiency. Take, for example, the popular YouTube and Instagram account Pasta Grannies. Vicki Bennison scours the culinary industry searching for women who still make pasta by hand. She then films these women to document and preserve a tradition that is rapidly disappearing.

Recently, we interviewed Chef Doug Schonfeld about his experience, his career, and how he made the transition from banquet chef to full-time salesman at Chefs’ Toys. While we spoke, we asked him about the realities of the culinary industry. What are the benefits of preserving traditional methods like making pasta by hand? Is it realistic in a competitive restaurant hotel or catering company?

Are Traditional Methods Coming Back?
To succeed in the foodservice industry, eateries must always track shifts in trends and tastes. The demand for “artisan” foods and craft beverages in the last decade has led to a boom in breweries, traditional bakeries, and other techniques long pushed to the side.

For example, London restaurant Jolene features a small stone ground flour mill just off the main kitchen. Described as the “heartbeat of the restaurant,” the mill delivers artisan bread straight to the tables of eager diners looking for an authentic taste. The diners’ embrace of traditionalism is a small part of a larger scale pushback against fast-casual chains and restaurants. However, the economic viability of traditional methods remains a lingering question.

“We’re advancing at a quick pace,” notes Chef Doug. “There are specialized tools that can take care of everything — food processors, dicers, blenders.” These devices streamline a kitchen and reduce the time needed to make a tasty meal for customers. What becomes imperiled when you remove those traditional by-hand methods is more the history of the food than the final product.

The Benefits of Traditional Methods
It is this history, and the communal practice of the methods, that Chef Doug feels is lost when we disregard tradition entirely. He remembers learning the fundamentals in culinary school — how can modern chefs advance the methodology of cooking if they don’t master the basic techniques practiced hundreds of years ago?

“These methods have been handed down for generations,” says Chef Doug. “When you’re making a handmade pasta from scratch, you’re feeling the dough and determining when it’s the right consistency. You learn, through doing, how much water to add to it, and how much egg. Compare this to just measuring ingredients, throwing it in a machine, and watching it spit out spaghetti.”

What Chef Doug highlights is the granular approach to preparing food that can be lost when technology replaces each process. If you own a high-grade pasta maker, you can customize your pasta with distinct thickness options to make each recipe unique. But are you able to handle the job without a pasta maker at your disposal?

Part of Pasta Grannies’ innate appeal is the channel’s devotion to the humans behind the food we eat. The featured chefs “spent a lifetime cooking for love, not a living.” The traditional methods imbue each signature creation with just that: plenty of love.

The Benefits of Modern Kitchen Technology
Making pasta by hand is not feasible when you are serving 400 people during a two-hour lunch rush. That is the crux of the foodservice industry — you must master the art of making delicious food that also turns a profit. “Handmade food is too labor-intensive,” notes Chef Doug. “If a chef spends six hours making a dish, he can’t charge six times the expected price, especially if a piece of equipment can make it in one hour.”

The benefits of modern kitchen technology include reliability, efficiency, and practicality. Niche tools are developed every year for all types of recipes. When you use a powerful, unique piece of equipment for your most popular dish, variation will be limited and you can fine-tune the recipe’s taste profile. Modern technology enables small restaurants to enter the market and come ready to compete with established eateries down the street.

Ultimately, Chef Doug believes that the tug-of-war between tradition and technology is a balancing act. “I wish we could hold onto all of the traditional methods, but you have to look at the labor cost,” he says. With the right training, education, and appreciation for history, chefs can carve out corners of creativity in their kitchen while relying on top-notch equipment to perform rudimentary tasks and keep the restaurant running smoothly. Are you just starting in the culinary industry? Check out Chef Doug’s top 7 tips for young chefs on the Chefs’ Toys blog.