With the re-launch of BonBonBar, I am now working out of my fifth shared commercial kitchen since I started the company in December 2007. Moving into a new kitchen is almost like moving into a new home, with all of the hopes and plans for organizing the soon-to-be-gone empty spaces, but a kitchen is also something like an instrument, whose nuances and tricks you have to learn to play along with. From the beginning, everyone I rent from is very aware that I essentially have a pretty simple two track mind that revolves around considerations of temperature (68-72F, please) and odor (none… please? ). I try not to be abrasive about it, but it’s pretty much all I talk about in a musing sort of way at first because it’s pretty much all I think about until I get comfortable with the space. I’ve never worked out of a kitchen used only for candy or is continuously temp-controlled, so I’ve had to make my niche wherever I am.
I thought that I’d write a few thoughts and experiences about working in commercial kitchens. I remember when I first starting working in commercial kitchens, everything seemed so heavy duty and intimidating. Now, I’m used to it, and when I’m in a home kitchen, everything seems so small and cute!
I’d say that I’ve rented one HUGE kitchen, two medium kitchens, and two small kitchens. While the larger kitchens are impressive and great for setting up multiple stations, I’ve come to really respect the simple efficiency that I’ve felt in smaller kitchens. There’s a lot to be said for being able to put ingredients directly onto the table from the fridge, to place them near the appropriate equipment after weighing them out, to cook at a stovetop, to turn around to pour out the result, and then to step a couple feet to the side to wash the dishes. And repeat. In the larger kitchens, you spend so much time traveling between the different areas that you lose time… and have time to think about losing time.
And as much as I try not to, I have a tenacious habit of spreading my stuff out when I work, and the larger kitchens act like enablers to that. Though speed racks, which hold multiple sheet pans, are a great way to keep things condensed, and mobile, since they have wheels.
Some people assume that a candy company needs just a little space as if the making and distributing of candy has to be a sylph-like enterprise. But stuff adds up — cases of chocolate, cambro containers of ingredients, pots, tools, chocolate melters, cutting boards, sheet pans, gift boxes, mailing boxes, candy pads, labels, molds, finished products, foil pouches, etc. So, a decent amount of storage space is also necessary, usually under work tables, in metro racks, or in speed racks.
Wonderful for getting a sense of the day and the neighborhood.
Bad for working at night and perhaps being watched.
I love wood-topped tables. They don’t warp from heat (important because I cook and pour out a lot of hot caramel; I put the pans on wooden cutting boards on stainless steel tables). They’re not not as loud when you place things on them. They feel good when touched. My current kitchen is my first that has one instead of all stainless steel.
OVENS & STOVES
I grew up using electric stovetops and used induction burners in culinary school, so it took a little while getting used to the powerful flames of commercial gas stovetops that have been in my kitchens. My current kitchen only has a large stock pot burner, so I’ve been using induction again when I need to heat smaller pots and I think I’m falling in love all over again. They’re so smooth and efficient, they’re like the silk of the kitchen burner options. I’d only use induction burners if I could, but my biggest pot would need a more expensive burner with a larger heating surface, so now I’m using a combination of the stock pot burner and the induction burner.
Many commercial ovens are convection ovens, but I don’t use the convection setting. I only use ovens for two things — to roast nuts (which I roast as low and slow as I can to get the best depth of flavor) and to bake cookies like shortbread and graham crackers, which I’m just used to baking without convection and don’t take a lot of time anyway.
Cool, big toys are great unless they’re not being used. Then they just take up space.
For my marshmallows, I recently bought my first hobart mixer, which is the standard for commercial mixers. In my last kitchen, I used someone else’s hobart when they weren’t using it. Like most commercial equipment, it’s heavy and powerful.
Chocolate work and storage is best for me between 68-72F degrees. To maintain that, it’s a matter of storage upstairs/downstairs or front/back depending on the time of day, or near a door or around a corner from the oven, or in a separate AC’ed conference room, or using gel paks and coolers.
Fans can help a lot to move heat, as well as a cross-breeze from having the front and back doors opened (if there are both), or the hood above the stove (if there is one). Kitchens tend to stay fairly warm — if they’re on the smaller side, the heat generated from the multi-door refrigerators and freezers can be significant. This can be a good thing in the winter, if it would otherwise be too cold.
Chocolates, like many foods, can absorb odors from their environment. Sweet or savory odors, I try to protect every component and confection with wrapping or moving to a different/protected space. Garlic, salmon, peppers, etc, are obviously bad, but any strong odor is bad. For instance, the other day, I knew that I had to make strawberry jam, which is like unleashing the loveliest, lushest strawberry patch in your kitchen, and that I had to dip Scotch and Coffee Candy Bars as well as cut marshmallows. I made the strawberry jam last, after everything was packaged and stowed because I didn’t want the lingering odor to affect the candy that I’d work with in the open air.
On a related note, I especially take care to isolate the coffee for my Coffee Candy Bar so that it’s as far away from other ingredients as possible — it’s so potent! This is also one reason why I’m reluctant to do anything with chilis.
Equipment and tools can also retain odors. I smell every cutting board before use, whether they belong to me or not (I use them for cutting, but also as handy flat surfaces).
The ONE time I let my guard down, I wound up with a painfully large batch of Garlic Malt Bars due to a contaminated spatula that someone had borrowed without asking (this is also the ONE time that happened) and that I was so grateful to get back that I used it without smelling it. I was working with someone on a diet that day, and I didn’t taste one until we were packing up. Then I had to start over.
In some kitchens, the space was only for my company during my time, and in others, there were others around. In the beginning, I only worked at night and alone, but as things progressed, I sometimes have helpers or work at the same time as others from other companies.
As in many other aspect of the business, the people make all the difference — btw having fun or slogging through. On good days, it’s almost festive to have a group of people in the kitchen skipping along with their work and it’s also instructive when you can compare notes or help each other out, but on bad days, a bad attitude or a complainer can bring everyone down. And that’s when iPods are especially handy, though not foolproof…