As we discussed in a previous post, refrigeration units will be one of the most important purchases you make when you set up your commercial kitchen. In this post, we’ll talk about two other useful types of refrigerators found in many commercial kitchens: the refrigerated prep table and the refrigerated chef base.
Different Types of Prep Tables
Prep tables are vital pieces of equipment for a restaurant kitchen where efficiency is a key element of successful food preparation. A refrigerated prep table combines the indispensable refrigerator with the all-important cutting surface – with built-in, easy-to-reach food pans that hold ingredients – to create an all-in-one area where cooks can easily gather what they need to create the dishes that contribute to your restaurant’s renown.
Sandwich/Salad Tables and Pizza Prep Tables
Although sandwich prep tables, salad tables, and pizza prep tables have different purposes, they are really not all that different. The basic construction of both is the same, with the differences being how the top of the unit is designed. The cutting board on a sandwich/salad prep table is shallower, and the food pans in the storage area are 1/6 size whereas a pizza prep table usually has a deeper cutting board space – often with with a raised pan rail – and 1/3 size food pans, designed specifically for making pizzas requiring only a few toppings.
Size and Storage
Because no two restaurant kitchens are alike, refrigerated prep tables come in a range of sizes with a variety of functions and features. If you have the space, a large unit is preferable – there’s lots of interior room in the refrigerator for storage, with ample work space on top; however if space is limited, you can opt for a smaller unit with less storage space that will fit in seamlessly with your kitchen’s design, providing you with the functionality you need despite the smaller size. If there is a high demand in your restaurant for, salads, for example, which use many ingredients in their preparation you should opt for a bigger salad/sandwich prep table, so you can work with greater ease.
The prep table storage area – the refrigeration area – comes with doors, drawers, or both, and each type of unit has its particular function. Units with doors are similar to reach-in refrigerators: they have shelves behind the doors on which the food is stored. In prep tables that have drawers, there is less open space; but the drawers can neatly hold pans of food, making for easy access and increased organization. If you can’t decide between drawers or doors/shelves, you can opt for a unit that has both, and that arguably is the best use of space possible.
Work Space Areas
Although configurations vary greatly, the basic components of a prep table include a cutting board, pan storage area, and a pan rail. The standard top design of a prep table has two rows: one contains food pans and the other a cutting board. This type of prep table is perfect for making sandwiches and salads and comes in varying sizes and styles. A mega-top or mighty-top unit may have up to 50% more storage area for pans (with a larger pan rail) and a cutting board that is less shallow. As mentioned above, if you work with a wide variety of ingredients that you want to access easily, a table with more pans could be what you need.
Cutting-board tops are another option, as they usually have the same pan capacity as a standard top design but with a very deep cutting board area that is useful for food prep requiring more work space.
Differences in Refrigeration
In terms of the methods used to refrigerate items in the top food pan section of a prep table, there are three types: air-cooled models, cold-wall units, and liquid jackets. Air cooling is the most common method used to cool standard prep tables; that is both a money saver and requires little maintenance and expertise. Cold-wall units utilize refrigerant lines that pass through the table to keep the interior space refrigerated. Though more complex, this is a sturdy form of refrigeration (such as the system found in standard reach-in refrigerators). Liquid jackets, the newest form of refrigeration, are typically found in pizza prep tables; and while they use a lot of electricity (and come with a higher price tag), they also allow for maximum storage space and uniform refrigeration. A fourth option is what is known as a “front-breathing” prep table. On these models, the air-intake and exhaust systems are both located at the front of the unit, enabling installation right up against the back wall with fewer constraints on clearance requirements.
All About Refrigerated Chef Bases
Another way to streamline you restaurant’s kitchen and boost efficiency is to purchase a refrigerated chef base that provides the ultimate in efficiency by combining a sturdy equipment area with a refrigerator. The top of a chef base is strong enough to hold a large griddle, burners, or fryers without compromising the efficiency of the refrigeration unit underneath. The concept is the same as that of a prep table: one multi-purpose unit that combines a lower-level refrigerator with a work area on top. The size of the unit that you buy should be determined by the available space in your kitchen, the space you need on top of the unit to hold what you need to put there, and the amount of food that you need to refrigerate underneath.
To do its job effectively, the chef base must have enough room to “breathe,” and should not be obstructed by outside objects. Different models will intake and exhaust air from different locations. Because you’ll probably have allocated one place in your kitchen for installing your chef base, it’s important to pay attention to the location of the compressor and the vents. Ensure that they will have plenty of clearance to provide sufficient air flow, which will ensure that the unit maintains proper temperatures and extends its useful life.
Side-mounted compressors are a good option if your equipment will be installed in an area with no other equipment placed next to it. Center-mounted compressors take in and exhaust air through a split vent in the front, so they can accommodate equipment or walls on three out of four sides (except the front). Finally, back-mounted compressors need a lot of clearance – at least six inches – from the wall to the back of the unit.
Independent Temperature Controls
If you anticipate that you will need to switch the unit’s compartments between cooling and freezing, or thaw frozen items at lower temperatures, you should be looking at a chef base with independent temperature controls. Although this type of chef base looks the same as a regular model in terms of cabinet structure, the difference lies in the refrigeration system and thermostat.
Worktop Chef Base
Because food preparation atop a chef base can get sloppy, this type of unit comes equipped with a backsplash attached to the back to protect the wall from food particles and splashes. Although the tops of chef bases are ruggedly constructed and can support heavy cooking equipment, it is important to check the specifications of the chef base you’re considering to ensure that what you’re putting on top will not exceed the weight limit of the base.
Thanks to the two-in-one design, each chef base offers a durable work top and refrigerator or freezer drawers below. Chef bases allow you to maximize the space in your kitchen to make the most of valuable space. A chef base is a great way for your staff to save time and work efficiently, as it eliminates the need to leave a work station to find ingredients.
Marine Edge vs. Flat Top Edge
A Marine Edge on top of a chef base helps contain drips and spills. It has a raised edge that is designed to contain liquids to keep them from dripping onto the floor, thereby helping you maintain a safe, sanitary work environment. The downside of a Marine Edge is that it reduces the usable space on top of your chef base. If you have a lot of equipment, you may want to pass on the Marine Edge and opt instead for a flat-top chef base or an extended top chef base – they’ll give you more room, albeit with less protection from spillage.
Cooking equipment placed atop a chef base needs to be mounted on legs to provide a degree of clearance between the bottom of the equipment and the top of the chef base. In addition, in almost all cases, a heat shield is built into the chef base to protect the refrigerator underneath from the heat radiating from the equipment. This is a great option that will help your refrigerator/freezer maintain its proper temperature, which in turns helps you cut down on energy costs. Heat shields have different levels of complexity, ranging from simple plywood, to sealed polyurethane foam insulation, and – the most expensive – a ceramic heat shield that supplements the foam.
Maintenance for Prep Tables and Chef Bases
While commercial kitchens tend to be tough on equipment, in general, the wear and tear on refrigerated prep tables and chef bases is especially harsh. Grease and liquid from the cooking surface can fall into the cabinet and clog up the mechanism – or worse.
To clean these units regularly, use soap and water first, then follow with a baking-soda solution and then wipe with a clean cloth. For more substantial cleaning, disconnect the unit from its power source and let it come to room temperature. Remove all interior drawers, shelves and racks, and clean the unit with baking soda, ammonia or vinegar mixed with warm water. Rinse with clean water and dry with a soft, clean cloth to prevent water stains or streaking on the finish. Periodically clean the condenser coils to ensure efficient output, consistent temperature, and less power usage.
If maintained properly, refrigerated prep tables and chef bases can last a long time and turn into a vital piece of equipment in your restaurant kitchen. Nothing beats the convenience of being able to reach down for ingredients as you cook or prepare foods, and have everything you need at your fingertips for quick and efficient food preparation. Do your homework and buy the unit that best fits your kitchen’s design – and feel the difference in increased efficiency and staff productivity.