As part of my research into how restaurants worked in past times, I’ve looked into their cooking methods, in particular the kind of fuel they used. Like all nuts and bolts questions, it has been difficult to nail down.
I wondered when public eating places began to switch from wood and coal to a more modern fuel such as gas. In the 19th century and well into the 20th, “artificial” gas was manufactured by heating coal. Gaslights were available as early as the mid-1810s in some places, and the first patent for a gas stove was given in the 1820s, but cooking with gas was rare, and didn’t occur in any public eating places that I could find.
At least 50 urban areas had gas works making gas by 1850. In that decade a number of patents were granted for gas cooking stoves. Stoves were marketed for domestic use, but there is evidence that some commercial users were interested in them too. In 1853 the Astor House in New York City experimented with gas cooking by roasting a turkey. In 1855 a manager of the National Hotel in Washington, D.C., applied for a patent for a gas stove. By the late 1850s Shaw’s Gaslight Cook Stove was available. It could be attached to a gas line with a hard rubber tube and was described as useful in restaurants, especially in the summer because “the heat arising from it is scarcely perceptible.”
But coal remained the fuel most often used in restaurant and hotel kitchens for most of the 19th century and even into the 20th – despite its drawbacks. Roger Horowitz described in his book Putting Meat on the American Table how difficult cooking with coal could be, particularly for baking and roasting. Not only was the cook unable to see what was happening but also, he wrote: “The fire had to be monitored carefully, as opening the ‘drafts’ to admit oxygen could lead coals to burn too fast, but limiting the drafts too much made it hard to reach good cooking temperatures. As coal was slow and difficult to light, enough had to be introduced to supply sufficient temperatures and cooking duration; on the other hand, putting in too much coal could burn the meat or even damage the stove by overheating the fire box.”
A vivid picture of how coal stoves operated was painted by a NYT story in 1903. The reporter visited a large hotel with a battery of over 20 stoves lined up in a row. The heat was overpowering and it took four or five “firemen” to stoke the stoves so that the heat never flagged. The fires needed to be rebuilt about three times a day and two of the stoves were kept going at all times in case the kitchen received an order. Of course kitchens became dirty [see photo from 1916] and quantities of ashes had to be hauled out.
Whatever the shortcomings of coal, it would appear that most chefs preferred it, especially when grilling meat. Although a New Haven CT stove company advertised gas as “the fuel of the future” in 1879 [see above], it would remain merely a concept in professional kitchens for some time. Far more kitchens used French-inspired coal stoves such as those sold by the Duparquet company [pictured, 1910] or manufactured in San Francisco by the John S. Ils company. Delmonico’s adopted gas ranges but Chef Charles Ranhöfer announced in 1894 that he was going to have gas removed from the restaurant’s kitchen. He much preferred to cook with house-made charcoal. The Waldorf tried electric ranges but rejected them after a few weeks. Only a few chefs interviewed in a NYT story spoke up for gas, though the Hoffman House’s chef G. N. Nouvel overcame his reluctance and adopted gas in 1895, doing away with the problem of “having fires ready and just right.” He predicted its use would become universal in hotels and restaurants “sooner or later.”
The use of professional gas stoves advanced somewhat during World War I when coal prices went up. In New York City, the Consolidated Gas Company reported that it had replaced coal stoves in a large number of professional kitchens within a two-week period in 1917. The Hotel Knickerbocker’s three kitchens took out all coal-burning appliances, replacing them with 84 feet of gas ranges, nine salamanders, three broilers, and a number of smaller gas appliances. Healy’s, Browne’s, and Pabst’s were a few of the restaurants that got rid of coal and installed five or more sections of gas ranges. Similar events were taking place in Boston’s large kitchens. [see Schrafft’s modern gas kitchen, 1938, when NYC still depended on manufactured gas]
Though it was available in certain areas sooner (Pittsburgh was the center of the industry in the 1880s), natural gas made its debut through much of the United States in the 1920s, encouraging its use in restaurants. It arrived in San Francisco in 1929, at a price lower than manufactured gas; in 1930 a survey revealed that gas was the main fuel for restaurant cooking in San Francisco, with coal a distant second. Electricity was commonly used for smaller appliances such as coffee urns, toasters, and waffle irons.
In the 1930s, two periodicals came out dedicated to the use of gas and electricity in restaurant and institutional kitchens. Cooking for Profit was launched in1932 by Gas Magazines, Inc., and Food Service, published by Electrical Information Publications, began in 1938. Both were filled with stories and advertisements for their respective energy sources and appliances, including Vulcan, Garland, and Hotpoint ranges. Stories in Food Service hailed restaurants and chains with all-electric kitchens such as the B&W Cafeteria in Nashville, while Cooking for Profit championed gas users such as the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia and the Nation of Islam’s Salaam restaurant in Chicago.
Natural gas was slow to arrive everywhere, including some large cities. New York City, Philadelphia, Boston and the rest of New England, Portland OR, Spokane and Seattle WA, Wisconsin, and Florida were not served with natural gas until after World War II, no doubt delaying the broad adoption of gas appliances in those places.
Today, most restaurants have both gas ranges and a variety of electric cooking devices, and perhaps a charcoal broiler too [pictured]. Might there even be a few chefs who swear by coal?
© Jan Whitaker, 2016
19 responses to “Cooking with gas”
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Just discovered your blog and enjoyed your piece on cooking with gas. I’ve long researcher of residential gas ranges myself — see my “Historic Kitchens Cookstoves” on Youtube — and yours is on-target; nice work!
I also admire your website. Mind sharing with me what template, whatever, you used on WordPress? Many thanks and keep up the good work. — Gordon
It’s Pilcrow, now retired by WordPress, alas. Thanks for your message. I’ll check out your blog.
Thanks for your sharing! Love your blog!
I love food and history and each entry of yours is very interesting. Thanks for your sharing!
Jan, fascinating as always. When I lived in a co-op house at Smith College in the early 1970s our kitchen stove/oven was a wonderful eight-burner Viking gas range. It was a Herculean task to clean it once a week, but it was a fabulous thing to behold and to cook with.
I’m going to think of this every time I sell a Vulcan or Garland range from now on. Fascinating and well done!
I love food and history and each entry of yours is very interesting. I would love for you to do a blog entry about tea in restaurants. Has tea always been horrible in American restaurants? There is a tea resurgence right now, but it still seems like restaurants can’t get a cup of tea right. Anyway, thanks for the interesting blog.
Good topic! Short answer: yes.
What are salamanders?
Compact free-standing broilers.
Love cooking with the old fashioned ones. Old stoves last seemingly forever!
Back in 1950’s New York, when I was a kid, if I did something speedily and well, my father would say to me: “Now you’re cooking with gas!” Similar kudos for your blog post!
Greetings! Such a thought provoking topic. I believe Chase Park Plaza’s tenderloin room still grills that wonderful tenderloin over real charcoal with the gas stove nearby.
I have always appreciated my Gas stove but now I laud the creators.
The popular Coalfire restaurant in Chicago, IL uses a coal-fired oven for its thin-crust pizza–and they are VERY good!
Very well done Jan…Very interesting