New at the NRA show this year is a pavilion devoted to Kitchen Innovations, featuring the winners of the 2005 Kitchen Innovations Award, as judged by a panel of eight design, fabrication, and equipment experts. Among the highlights for quick-serve and fast-casual:

Fluke was honored for its FoodPro Plus, a non-contact infrared thermometer, which instantly reads surface temperatures to determine if foods are within HACCP guidelines. The unit also features a more traditional probe thermometer for reading internal temperatures. It’s not necessary to know HACCP guidelines, either, as the thermometer’s display gives a red or green go/no-go light. Given the importance of food safety — and that improper food temperatures are one of the top safety problems in foodservice — this one looks like it’s well-deserving of the award.

Lincoln was honored for its Dual Technology Finisher, which combines impingement and infrared technologies and can produce toasted sandwiches in 45 to 90 seconds. And although toasting sandwiches is no doubt the primary use of the DTF (think Quiznos), the CIA-trained chef who demonstrated the unit believes there are plenty of other potential uses, such as pizzas, appetizers, and even center-of-the-plate entrees — he’s used it to cook lamb.

Of interest to Italian concepts, or concepts that would like to add an Italian bent to the menu, is Prince Castle’s Romar Pasta Cooker. This piece of equipment can dispense and cook up to four individual servings of dry pasta simultaneouly to al dente texture in about three minutes. How? With the push of a button, a hopper drops one serving of dry pasta into a pressure cooking chamber where steam and tap water combine to do their thing. When the pasta is cooked, it drops into a serving strainer, where it’s ready to finish with sauce.

Then there’s the SelfCooking Center from Rational. Though this product is clearly intended for use in more upscale, even white tablecloth, establishments, there might be some applications in fast-casual. This combi-oven essentially takes all the guesswork out of cooking meats, so one doesn’t need to be a “formally trained chef” to use it. Let’s say you want to roast chicken. Select that option on the display, indicate how dark you’d like the skin to be, insert a probe thermometer, and push a button. That’s pretty much it.

There does appear to be a common theme in these innovations, namely that they take the element of human guesswork out of the equation. In a chain environment, of course, where everything must be consistent every time, that’s key.

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