OUR kitchens are becoming more like laboratories as home cooks spend thousands on high-tech appliances.
Shows such as MasterChef and the science-based Heston’s Feasts have driven sales of commercial devices such as vacuum-packers, sous vide water baths and ”smoking guns”.
”TV cooking shows have really helped demystify these devices,” says Dale Prentice, an importer of commercial kitchen appliances. He started selling to home cooks 18 months ago and says they now account for about a third of his business. Sous vide baths, in which vacuum-packed food is slow-cooked in precisely heated water, are his most popular item and cost about $1000.
”We’ve been putting a commercial sous vide unit into homes at the rate of about one a week,” he says. ”It has come as a bit of surprise – how much money the public have to spend on kitchen toys.”
Retailers, meanwhile have reported a surge in sales of high-end appliances as sales of other consumer goods fall.
”It’s really one of our strongest categories, and what’s driving that is fashion and innovation,” says Myer merchandise chief Adam Stapleton.
Top-sellers at Myer include super-charged blenders costing $900 and ice-cream makers for about $500.
Andrew Scott and his wife, Selena, estimate they have spent about $10,000 in the past five years on kitchen appliances, including a vacuum-packer, sous vide bath, blowtorch, high-speed Vitamix blender, pressure-cooker, chocolate tempering device, ice-cream maker and a smoking gun (a hand-held device that produces cool smoke but does not heat or cook the food).
”We have way too many appliances,” says Mr Scott, 36, a small-business owner who cooks most nights. He is currently reading Modernist Cuisine, a seven-volume tract selling for about $500, which details the science of cooking – including how sous vide cooking at low temperatures can protect cell walls in meat from bursting and becoming tough.
He is a fan of British TV chef Heston Blumenthal, who has helped popularise molecular gastronomy, but says he has never seen an episode of MasterChef.
But George Dardamanis at Chef’s Hat in South Melbourne says there is still a ”MasterChef factor”. The store has sold 50 smoking guns this year, including five on Tuesday – the day after MasterChef featured the device in a challenge.
”It’s not as strong as when it first started, but we still get a spike in inquiries whenever they feature something new,” he says.
Commercial-grade ”combi ovens”, which use a combination of heat and steam and cost between $9000 and $25,000, have been selling at Chef’s Hat at the rate of about one a month to home cooks.
The store also sells thermal mixers, including the HotmixPRO ($2200) and the Thermochef ($900), which can weigh, chop, mix, mill, knead, cook and steam food in one unit.
But it is rival brand Thermomix, which costs $1939, that has cornered the market on hot-mixers. Australian sales of the German-designed device almost doubled last year to 27,000 – despite the fact that you can only buy one by attending a Tupperware-style demonstration party.
Grace Mazur, sole Australian distributor of Thermomix, started her business in 2001 with two staff and now has 1500 sales consultants, who last year conducted more than 30,000 home demonstrations, earning between $200 and $400 commission per sale. Ms Mazur’s turnover in 2011 was about $50 million.
”A lot of people were quite sarcastic towards us when we started … They used to say things like, ‘Oh, what? Will it wash my dishes; will it go and do my shopping?”’
Not quite, but fans of the device say it has helped them save money, cook healthier meals and experiment with new techniques. ”I would say I save about $40 a week,” says Annie Turnbull, 54. ”I’m vegan and I now make everything from scratch, like dips, bread and rice milk.”
Thermomix has featured prominently on MasterChef, and is used widely in restaurant kitchens. Jacques Reymond, who like many top chefs has one, says while the device is a good way for home chefs to carry out mundane tasks, professional cookery still requires manual skills. ”It’s very good for home but we only use it for things like purees and emulsions; we never use it to cook an entire dish.”