As one of the country’s leading evangelists for electric kitchens, Christopher Galarza has heard just about every excuse for why chefs won’t let go of their gas stoves as governments increasingly target the appliance: You have better control over temperature with gas, they say. You can cook with gas even when the power goes out. You don’t have to worry about breaking the glass surface on a gas range. The list is long.
Galarza understands the resistance. As a trained chef, he felt pretty much the same before he made the transition from gas to electric about seven years ago. He had accepted a job at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, which in 2016 opened a “living learning laboratory,” complete with induction cooktops. Now, as the founder of Forward Dining Solutions, Galarza rebels against the tyranny of gas stoves in professional kitchens. He has consulted with Microsoft, Google and other companies to convert their kitchens to electricity. He knows how to deflect chef complaints about induction cooktops (health codes, he might chide them, usually prohibit commercial kitchens from cooking when the power’s out), but he also knows how to speak their language. At a time of rising costs, he’ll tell them, induction cooking saves restaurants money in the long haul.
“When you’re able to talk about cost savings and talk about the operational efficiencies and how it’s going to benefit the operations, all of a sudden everyone forgets about gas versus electric and they say, ‘How can I get there?’” Galarza said. “Because right now, working in the kitchen sucks.”
The restaurant industry’s affection for gas stoves is based on experience, history, marketing, cuisine, aesthetics and sometimes the sheer machismo of cooking over an open flame. Seventy-six percent of restaurants across the country use gas in their kitchens, according to a National Restaurant Association survey last year, and the number climbs to 87 percent when you take into account just full-service restaurants. Many of the cooks in these kitchens do not plan to surrender their gas ranges without a fight.
And make no mistake: Many cities, counties and states have placed a bull’s eye on natural gas, a fossil fuel that carries both health and environmental risks. One hundred jurisdictions, most of them in California, have either banned gas hookups in new homes and buildings, or are offering incentives to switch to cleaner energy sources. In December, the Consumer Product Safety Commission said it would consider regulating indoor air pollution from gas stoves, and a few weeks later, an agency commissioner mentioned that he had not ruled out a ban on the appliances. The commission’s chair quickly retracted the idea of a ban, but the match had been lit: A smoldering issue erupted into a full-blown conflagration.
Those who cook have had to pick a side, and the restaurant business has, by and large, sided with gas. Check the record: After industry protests, several jurisdictions have exempted restaurants and other commercial kitchens from their regulations banning gas hookups, including New York City, Los Angeles and Ventura County, Calif.
The National Restaurant Association (NRA) put together a fact sheet last fall outlining the industry’s fears about these new mandates. Among other things, the NRA and the restaurants that it represents are concerned that retrofitting existing buildings could cost “hundreds of thousands” of dollars in electrical upgrades, a burden that could doom operators still dealing with pandemic-related debt. (The NRA’s document glides over the fact that almost all of these laws target new construction, not existing structures.) Chefs and owners even fret that their food would suffer without the ability to cook over an open flame.
On that last fear, J. Kenji López-Alt, the chef and author whose latest book delves into the world of wok cooking, notes that restaurateurs have a point — at least those who operate Chinese restaurants that rely on large high-heat wok burners. The art of Chinese stir-fry cooking is difficult, if not impossible, to replicate with induction burners, even those specifically designed for woks, in part because heat transference occurs only when the pan is in contact with the electromagnetic cooktop. The way flavors are developed — such as oil singed as flames lick up and around the pan — are virtually unique to stir-fry cooking, especially those dishes that call for wok hei, a kind of charred quality that occurs when ingredients are tossed in a well-seasoned wok.
For these reasons and more, chefs who specialize in stir-fry cooking will probably never surrender their high-Btu gas burners, López-Alt said. “It’s kind of like asking, ‘Why can’t a guy doing Texas barbecue just use an electric stove instead of a wood fire?’ Well, that’s not going to happen because that’s really the essential part of the flavor of the dish,” he said.
Part of what keeps chefs from embracing induction cooking is tradition, maybe even the fear of hanging their reputations on equipment that’s unfamiliar to them. Galarza is convinced chefs have outdated ideas about induction ranges and stovetops. Take, for example, the fear of shattering the glass surface. Galarza said that the latest models have ceramic-glass surfaces and that they’re very durable. They can withstand extremely high heat. “Unless you’re taking a sledgehammer to it, you’re going to be just fine,” Galarza said.
Amanda Cohen, the chef and owner of Dirt Candy in Manhattan, was an early adopter of induction cooking, though her decision was dictated as much by the size of her first restaurant as by environmental concerns. With only 18 seats and an open kitchen that measured about 50 square feet, the original Dirt Candy was too small to accommodate a gas stove, Cohen remembers. She figured everyone in the place would be miserable during the summer months. So she went electric.
Back in 2008, when the Dirt Candy debuted in the East Village, induction cooktops were more fragile. The glass surface would occasionally break, she recalls, and you quickly learned not to crank the electromagnetic burners too high lest your vegetables take a turn toward the dark side. But the benefits were obvious: She no longer suffered scars or burns, because induction heat is transferred to the magnetized pan only, not to the stovetop or to pot handles. She no longer had to constantly futz with the pots and pans either, seeking the perfect heat over a gas burner, because with induction, “you can cook something really slowly without worrying that it’s going to burn or that it’s going to turn off.”
Just as important, she and her team weren’t covered in sweat by the end of a shift, risking heat exhaustion during hot months. “You don’t need six or seven quarts of water to keep hydrated,” Cohen said. “It’s not as physically exhausting.”
When Dirt Candy moved into a former bus station in 2015, Cohen didn’t even consider switching to gas stovetops. The second iteration of Dirt Candy has eight burners total, all induction, though Cohen did install a gas grill, fryer and oven. Her biggest expense in transforming the old bus station was installing an HVAC system and upgrading the electric panels to accommodate the power demands of her new, mostly electric kitchen, she said.
This is the point where many chefs and restaurateurs jump off the electric bandwagon: shortly after they review the costs to build out or retrofit a space for an electric kitchen. The price difference between gas and induction stoves alone can be significant. An owner will probably shell out three or four times more for a commercial-grade induction range or cooktop than a conventional gas-powered one, experts say. This can translate into thousands of dollars — maybe tens of thousands — more in capital expenditures.
Then there’s the cost to upgrade a building to provide enough power to run an electric kitchen. In a market such as Pittsburgh, an operator with a small restaurant could probably get the necessary upgrades for $10,000, all in, Galarza said. But in more expensive cities, the costs could quickly multiply. Richard Young, director of education at Frontier Energy’s Food Service Technology Center in San Ramon, Calif., said he has been trying to upgrade the electrical system in his early 20th-century home in Oakland. He expects to pay more than $30,000 once finished, and that’s just for a 200-amp panel in a residential home. Restaurants, with larger electrical needs, would pay much more in the Bay Area.
Plus, Young noted, natural gas is cheaper than electricity in most jurisdictions. A restaurant with a gas fryer and oven can expect to pay, generally speaking, about half of what a restaurant using an electric fryer and oven would shell out for energy, Young said.
But when it comes to induction and gas burners, the difference in energy costs all but disappears. The reason is simple: Gas burners are terribly inefficient. The Food Service Technology Center has conducted tests on all types of cooking equipment, including gas burners and induction cooktops. In one study, researchers brought 20 pounds of room-temperature water to a near boil to measure the efficiency of the equipment. The gas burner was 25 to 40 percent efficient, meaning 60 percent or more of its energy went elsewhere, maybe sucked into the ventilation system or released into the kitchen. The induction cooktop was 80 to 85 percent efficient, by comparison.
“In reality, most gas ranges in the field are on the low side of that efficiency range, and because folks often leave the burners on when not cooking, gas ranges can have an operational efficiency more in the 10 to 20 percent range,” Young told The Washington Post.
That inefficiency can impact the restaurant and its workers: The heat in the kitchen, sometimes exceeding 100 degrees in summer, can force the air-conditioning system to work harder, pushing up a restaurant’s energy bill. But the heat can also create extremely dangerous conditions for cooks.
Young has made the argument that restaurants are, in a sense, energy companies. They buy energy and convert it into heat for cooking. Low-efficiency equipment, then, is just bad for business; it creates higher operating costs, to say nothing of the larger environmental and health issues. But restaurants don’t have to switch immediately to electric kitchens to improve efficiency, Young said, a point that might ease some of the pressure on this growing culture war. Many restaurants operate with old, outdated, inefficient gas equipment.
“If we can get everybody to move towards high-efficiency gas equipment in those existing kitchens, then we’ll cut carbon dramatically,” he said.
Tom Colicchio says manufacturers will eventually split the difference for those chefs who want flexibility. “You’re going to see a lot of range makers that are going to be [building stoves] so you can get a configuration of, say, four gas burners and two induction burners,” the chef and “Top Chef” host said.
A number of high-profile chefs — Grant Achatz at Alinea in Chicago and Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, Calif., among them — have already adopted induction cooking. But others are considering it or making plans to incorporate electric cooking into their next project (such as Colicchio, who said he will add induction cooktops to his forthcoming restaurant in Washington).
Take Alice Waters, the grande dame of California cuisine. She intends to open a cafe this year next to Chez Panisse, her farm-to-table temple in Berkeley, Calif. She plans to install induction stovetops in the new place. She will then turn her attention to Chez Panisse, where she’ll begin to make the change to electric equipment.
A pioneer of the local food movement, Waters stood firmly with many of her peers when it came to cooking with gas. Then about a year ago, she took a trip to Hawaii and stayed at a friend’s house where the kitchen was all induction.
“At first, I …,” Waters said, then uttered an interjection that sounded a lot like “ack!” “I resisted it. But after cooking on it for a week, I got used to it.”
Over the course of a week, Waters learned to regulate heat without using flames as a visual cue, letting go of a practice that’s basically muscle memory for many chefs. Over time, as Waters adopts electric cooking at her restaurant and cafe, she may discover many of the benefits that Cohen has found at Dirt Candy. Waters may even one day come to realize, like Cohen, that she can’t live without her electric kitchen.
Said Cohen: “It’s really hard to cook on an induction and then go back” to gas.