An Outsider Looking In*

Last year, I visited a local school district’s food-service production kitchen and cafeteria in Houston, Texas. PrimeroEdge values the opportunity to tour sites and learn first-hand the trials and tribulations our users face on a day-to-day basis. These visits provide a wealth of knowledge by experiencing the sights, sounds, and smells of school cafeterias to help us relate.

The kitchen at the local school district reminded me of the central production kitchen at my university. Prior to joining the PrimeroEdge team, I studied nutrition at the University of Texas at Austin (UT). Classes include food science, community nutrition, nutrition education, and much more.

Central Production Kitchen

To this day, the most eye-opening course was Foodservice Systems Management. I had the opportunity to receive hands-on experience working and observing a large food production setting for the first time.
UT only has 2 production kitchens to provide for two main buffet-style dining locations, and eight for a la carte. Considering approximately 50,000 total students attend UT, their nutrition department has a lot of people to feed. In addition, the menus must be diverse and unique to suit anyone’s lifestyle and palate, just like K-12 schools.

The main production kitchen is in a building called Jester Center – a dormitory so big, it once had its own zip code! My partner and I rotated through various sections in the Jester production kitchen for our Foodservice Systems Management class. Separate days were spent in cold food production, hot food production, and the bakery area.

Hot Food Production

Our time in hot food production is what truly sticks in my mind. Approximately eight people worked in this department – astonishing considering the number of mouths they feed. I remember employees explaining that if they run out of a one menu item, it’s substituted for another, which I later learned is a common feature in menu planning software. The PrimeroEdge Menu Planning module takes it a step further with a “Find and Replace” feature – a true time-saver.

I learned the Jester kitchen often uses batch cooking to improve the quality of food served. Batch cooking refers to cooking smaller amount of food as needed for service, which is best for menu items such as lasagna, fish, and vegetables, to keep the taste fresh and crisp. If your program utilizes methods of strict batching, the previously mentioned software has a checkbox just for that, too!

Experience and Lessons Learned

As we started the day, my lab partner and I were nervous. The kitchen at Jester is intimidating with the heavy industrial machinery and employees running around like chickens without heads. In addition, we feared making a mistake while cooking our recipes, and in turn, wasting a large quantity of food. We used our production records to make two soups, Nine Bean Soup and Beef Noodle Soup, along with Cilantro Lime Rice. It was an eye-opening experience and I learned more than I ever could have imagined.

The personnel in hot food production must have great multitasking skills and work well in a fast-paced environment. Teamwork is extremely important and you must mentally prepare for a constant stream of work from the start to the end of the long shift. There is always something that needs to be done. For example, if you are not in the middle of cooking, you must clean the area, prep menu items, or provide assistance to someone else. You must be alert and aware at all times and in fact, it’s necessary to think several steps ahead to avoid mistakes.

The hectic stream of activity was a shock with various activities happening all at once. While one entrée is in the oven, another is on the range, and a third item is on the tilt skillet. All three were closely monitored at the same time, proving to be quite the feat. Once the correct temperature is reached, the menu items were covered and stored immediately. The kitchen at UT must adhere to Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) guidelines, just like at K-12 schools. Since coming to work for PrimeroEdge, I learned that our menu planning software helps child nutrition programs plan and track for HACCP.

What have your experiences been like working in large- or small-scale production kitchens? Please describe in the comments below!

*Photo by USDA with courtesy of Creative Commons