On the cheap?

14 June 2004
On the cheap?

Life in the kitchen is tough. Chefs make high demands on catering equipment, but that's why commercial equipment exists and chefs buy it. Professional equipment isn't cheap, but it's a long-term investment from a one-off payment. Well, in most cases it is.

"Despite the label and the price declaring something to be heavy-duty, it's not as heavy-duty as it used to be"
I grow ever more suspicious that despite the label and the price declaring something to be heavy-duty, it's not as heavy-duty as it used to be, or as chefs expect. Chefs give equipment a hard time, not just because of the intensity of the job, but because it's not theirs. I'm sure a lot of chefs wouldn't dream of handing out as much mechanical abuse at home in their own kitchen as they do at work. But that doesn't stop me from occasionally wondering whether manufacturers are clawing back eroded profit margins on equipment by quietly cheapening build quality. Is it my cynicism, or is it more than coincidence that the first serious breakdown on some items of equipment seems to occur soon after the warranty has expired? Nowhere is this reduction in quality more apparent than in food preparation equipment. Northcote Manor has always had a policy of buying the best and usually most expensive in the belief that it would prove cheaper in the long term. Now I'm changing my mind increasingly and switching to buying cheaper equipment in the knowledge that it might be thrown away after a year. I seemed to be throwing the more expensive stuff away just as regularly. A perfect example of this growing practice of manufacturers building in obsolescence is with one of the most simple items of a equipment a professional kitchen can have, the stick blender. We do the catering at Blackburn Rovers Football Club, producing huge amounts of fresh soups. With varieties such as leek and potato, a large, heavy-duty stick blender is needed to break down the leeks and make it smooth. Large I can buy, heavy-duty I cannot. For an item of equipment that's little more than an electric motor and a few cogs and rods, the quality should be better. I suspect the simple stick blender is quietly undergoing the same despecification in manufacturing as some other items of kitchen equipment. Yet I'm moved to raise the issue of faltering quality standards by something that has no motor, no moving parts and is present in every kitchen - the humble knife-sharpening steel. They're supposedly made with diamonds, but they just don't last, and chefs can't work with blunt knives. Yet any charges of lower manufacturing quality are met with complete denials. A manufacturer can come up with a dozen reasons why the equipment broke down before it should have done, but never an admission that maybe the equipment just wasn't up to the job. This is not a rant against manufacturers - there's some very good equipment out there and plenty of items that have been in the Northcote Manor kitchen for 10 years or more. I just worry that some of the new stuff coming in is doomed never to see a 10th birthday. Nigel Haworth is head chef and joint owner of Northcote Manor, Langho, Lancashire
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