Tag Archives: restaurant kitchens

Cooking with gas

stoveposterstampsAs 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.

stove1879NewHavenI 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.”

stovekitchenDaly'sRestCoalRange1916MCNYA 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.

StoveADV1910TheChef

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.”

stoveschrafft'skitchen1938The 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.

stoveAncestrySantaCruz1937In 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.

stovekitchencharcoalbroil41sfToday, 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

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Interview: who’s cooking?

whoscookingRecently I interviewed someone who had cooked in a 24-hour restaurant located on the outskirts of a small Midwestern town in 1970.

He worked there one summer. He was the sole night shift kitchen staff from 10 pm to 6 am. Previous experience? One week as cook at a children’s summer camp the previous year.

He was 16 years old.

Although he gave it little thought at the time, he now suspects the restaurant was designed, owned, and operated by the food processing company that supplied the food, the menus, the “recipes” – in short, everything. Follow-up research revealed that the company supplied 1,500 restaurants, schools, and institutions in four states.

DIchickenThe building was new and blandly modern. It was surrounded by a parking lot. Through a big plate glass front window was a view of an interior with booths, formica-topped tables and chairs, and a counter with stools. The decor, as he remembers it, contained multi-colored hanging lights, fake stone, and grill work in a coordinated style he calls “corporate.” About 60 people could be seated. At night, except right after the bars closed on weekends, there were rarely more than a dozen patrons at any one time.

Most of the night customers were working men, traveling salesmen, work crews, people passing through town. It wasn’t much of a local hangout, unlike the bowling alley restaurant at the other end of town. It served no alcohol.

Was there a chef at this restaurant? Answer: prolonged laughter. The manager had preprinted forms on which he checked off what supplies were needed.

DIshrimpA popular order, particularly with the barflies, was steak and eggs ($2.50 with toast and coffee). Eggs were one of the few items of fresh food in the kitchen other than lettuce and tomatoes. “Everything was frozen so once you knew how to deep fry it or put it in the Lytton [microwave] oven, you were set,” he said. This included pies (“Served Hot from Our Electronic Ovens”), Cordon Bleu, Breaded Pork Tenderloin, Golden Fried Chicken, and Fillet of Perch. Potato Salad came in a tub, Soup of the Day in giant cans. Hard boiled egg came in a long tube so that every slice was the same. Home Baked Bread? Well, I think you know.

DILogoThe food  images shown in this post are stickers applied to the restaurant’s menu before the entire thing was plasticized. I take them to be generic, as I do the meaningless logo from the menu’s cover which looks like it was intended for a “steak & ale” eatery.

With some orders he got to do what he considered “actual cooking”: “Liver and onions. You have to make the bacon and onions – that was actual cooking. Denver omelet, that was actual cooking.” He enjoyed making sandwiches at the deli counter. One of his personal favorites was the Denver Sandwich — chopped ham, pickle, and scrambled egg made in a patty and served on toasted bread. He also enjoyed cottage cheese and pineapple.

DIsteakDiners rarely sent food back to the kitchen. “It’s amazing how many different kinds of food that a 16-year old could cook and not ruin anything. I was feeding a lot of people with a lot of liability and it didn’t go wrong,” he said. The manager criticized him for one thing only: giving customers too many french fries. Limit them to a handful, insisted the manager. So he garnished the plates with parsley and “Never got in trouble for using too much parsley.”

DIFriedChicken

Despite all, he had surprising praise for his old workplace, saying, “I was impressed with the efficiency of the kitchen. It was easy to work in. I liked that there was a ready supply of clean linens.” He added, “There were not many dining establishments. Before Applebee’s this filled a niche. It was more ambitious food than people had access to before.”

Did he ever return there as a customer? “No,” he said, “I had no warm fuzzy feeling for the place.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Anatomy of a chef: Joseph E. Gancel

At an antiquarian book show last weekend I picked up a copy of Gancel’s Encyclopedia of Modern Cooking originally published in French in 1918, with an English version in 1920. Gancel’s Encyclopedia was an enlarged and enhanced version of his 1909 Ready Reference of Menu Terms which he compiled to assist waiters in explaining to diners the bewildering number of dishes, mostly in French, found on menus of the best restaurants of that time.

Joseph E. Gancel was a Frenchman who had a long career working in hotels and restaurants in the United States, France, and Belgium, as well as clubs and organizations such as the Brazilian Embassy in Brussels and the Press Club in Paris.

In 1874, at age 12, Joseph began his culinary apprenticeship in Rennes, France. In the 1880s he worked in the kitchens of European hotels such as Paris’s Grand Hotel and restaurants such as the Café de la Paix and the Moulin Rouge in Paris and the Antwerp branch of the Paris oyster house Rocher de Cancale.

In 1892 he immigrated to the United States with his wife and five children, finding work at the Waldorf-Astoria [pictured], the Plaza, Sherry’s, and others. He worked at many places; I’ve counted 21 and I’m sure the total is greater. When he published his 1920 edition of the Encyclopedia, he was about 58 years old and living in San Francisco where he was a member of Cooks’ Union Local 44. The self-published book, mailed from the author’s lodging house, cost $2.50. I hope he made some money from the book – evidently he had not become rich as a chef.

Just how confusing menus could be is indicated by the number of egg dishes included in his 1920 book: 477! To keep the book pocket-size he had to do a lot of abbreviation, leading H. L. Mencken to say, rather wryly, “His terse, epigrammatic style touches the heart.” Readers trying to make sense of the above sample page might like to know that . . .
art. = artichokes
can. = canapé
dec. = decorated
foi-g. = foie gras
gar. = garnished
po. = poached
pu. = puree
sa. = sauce
sal. = salpicon (a filling of chopped meat, fish, or vegetables)

There are some curiosities in Gancel’s Encyclopedia. Only a handful of Asian menu items are described. He pretty much dismisses Asian cuisine with the sentence, “Culinary art is very poor in China and Japan.” Yet there is room in the book for esoteric dishes such as Sauterelles Rôties, which I must remember never to order. At least I now know how to eat Roast Locusts (“When cold, take off head, wings and tail, eat same as shrimps.”) and how to store them (“Salted locusts can be conserved in a jar, covered with mutton grease.”)

The Encyclopedia also reveals that Gancel was an advocate for kitchen workers. He was quite unhappy with conditions found in most hotel and restaurant kitchens. Noting the stark contrast between magnificent dining rooms and the squalid subterranean areas where meals are prepared, he wrote, “When you see the cooks come out of the basement kitchens, pale and very often rheumatic, it is no wonder that they are so, considering that they have been shut up in such an atmosphere, forced to inhale the gas from the range and the fumes generating in the cooking utensils. . . . Give to these men sanitary, hygienic, well lighted, and ventilated kitchens. Such would be an act of humanity as well as a public necessity.”

I agree.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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