Kitchen Mechanics by Gary O Hanlon

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The Vac-Pac: The machine your business can't afford not to have

Every Chef can cook. Not every Chef can make money.

That’s a fact.

Most head chefs spend years travelling the world learning their craft. I for one started cooking in a professional environment the night I finished my Junior Cert. Every weekend and summer thereafter, until I finished my Leaving Cert, was spent in The Rosapenna Hotel, Downings, County Donegal, listening and learning every single day. My career then took me around Ireland before hitting Boston, aged 21. I wasn’t long learning that I was in the lion’s den. America takes no prisoners. You don’t hit your margins in America, you’re a goner. No warning, gone. It is a ruthless mofo. Trust me. If you want to fast-track your business acumen, then run a business in America. Chances are, if you can handle your beans there, you’ll survive just about anywhere. Now that’s not a guarantee: at the end of the day you must put a graft in everywhere you work/live but I’ve seen that you tend to get a “yellow” card in most places whereas, in the 'States, it’s a straight “Red” baby.

All this travelling, working, learning etc etc is so that one day you’ll get the mother job. A Head Chef position in a high-end restaurant or 5 Star Hotel. It’s also the day you’ll realize that you are now a businessman. It doesn’t matter how well you can cook. Yes, your reputation as a good cook is ultimately what gets you the job but keeping that job will be down to one thing and one thing only: Can you make money!

In the large 5 Star environments you may even find yourself never cooking. For myself, in a small restaurant, I must cook every single day and find time to deal with the business end of it as I go, or do it on a day off. In a larger scale operation, like a massive 3,4 or 5 star hotel, simply checking in deliveries can take up to a few hours. Never mind the time it takes to do them, accurately. Then there are the soul destroying HOD meetings. Not all bad, of course, but ask any chef where they’d rather be, a boardroom or a kitchen, and I know what answer you’ll get. The thing is, you’ve got to know how to handle yourself in both. Being good with the yo yo’s will ensure that the boardroom is a much more comfortable place to be.

For this segment though I’m going to concentrate on the ingredients you do have and a machine that your business simply cannot afford not to have.

A Vac-Packer.

 It’s not 100% necessary to have a water bath also but if you do invest in a Vac-Pac then I’d recommend you invest in a water bath also. I’ll explain why in a bit.

For shelf life alone a Vac-Pac is worth its weight in gold. The second deliveries come in, get them butchered down, portioned and vac-packed away.

Let's take chicken as an example. A box of Free Range chicken arrives. It’s checked for temperature, quality and freshness. Then it’s butchered by a chef and stored in a fridge. There’s a high probability that a young chef (even an old one for that matter) will stack them in rows on top of one another. After one day in a properly controlled environment the bottom layer of chicken will start to get a little slimey. It won’t have gone off, but it certainly won’t look as fresh as the previous day.

On day three the chef that butchered the chicken may well be on a day off. Another young cook may now be working the station and he shoots into the fridge looking for his mise-en-place. He sifts through the chicken breasts, finds that they are overly slimey and decides to chuck them in the bin. These chickens are absolutely perfect but, due to bad storage, they have the appearance of being old and unusable.

In other words, he’s just thrown money in the bin.

By packing them in twos, fours or even slightly larger quantities, you’ll find that you never have that worry. Labeled and dated properly on the bag, they’ll maintain the appearance of that of day one. After three days of not being used they now need to be frozen. You could probably get away with another day but three days is my rule. Another advantage of the Vac-pac is you will now find yourself in a situation whereby you eliminate freezer burn. Items can easily be forgotten in a freezer and, if they are, chances are by the time you go to use them they are burnt as clingfilm blows off and the flesh of the meat becomes damaged.

The result? Money in the bin.

This example, though, is only minor. A proper head chef and a good crew, even without a Vac-Packer, would hopefully be labeling and storing ingredients in a proper fashion, whether that is in the fridge or the freezer. Here, though, is another example, and one where figures come into the equation.

A Vac-Packer is expensive. Generally €3000-€3500.

For arguments sake lets just say €3000. A water bath is around €1000.

We’ll leave out the pennies here and round things off to an even number. Properly dry aged beef is around  €26 per kg. Yes you can buy gear for €10 - €18 give or take but: it’s shit. I’m talking the real deal, dry-aged beef.

Feather-Blade or shoulder, however, is approx. €8- €9 per kg.

Lets just say on a Sunday roast you need approx. 21kg of beef. Yes it’s a lot, but I’m talking an average busy restaurant that’d use approx. 4-5 strips. An average strip is anywhere between 4 and 6kg. (Give or take).

Now if you replace the 21kg of Dry-aged striploin @ €26 with 21kg of Feather-Blade @ €8 per kg you are making some serious savings. The 21kg of striploin is costing you €546 whereas the Featherblade is costing you €168. A difference of €378 per week when using the aforementioned quantities.

Having the Vac-packer to seal the feather-blade and the water-bath to cook it properly now means that you can produce arguably a far better dish and at the same time make significant savings.

In fact, with the savings from the feather-blade alone you’ll have paid for a €3000 Vac-pac machine in 7.9 weeks. A further 2.6 weeks and you’ve covered the cost of the water bath. You’re also providing a different, but equally impressive,  dish for your customers. Win-win, right?

These are only two examples!

Doesn’t seem so expensive now does it!


Read more from this series:

The Food Critic
The Next Generation
The Front of House
The KP
The Vac Pack
The Chef