Microsoft has a bold new release. It was years in development and required all the beta testing and version tweaks one would expect of a hot new app or software package. But this new product is no app. It’s a wok.
Yes, one of the world’s leading technology companies has spent the past two years developing a new way to stir-fry. And though that might sound low-tech and perhaps low-priority, it’s actually part of a radical rethinking of how kitchens operate.
The wok is part of Microsoft’s brand new all-electric kitchen at its headquarters outside Seattle, where nearly 50,000 employees are based. The company is adding 3 million square feet of offices and facilities, and the entire project is being designed to be powered by a vast geothermal system and produce zero carbon emissions. A big part of getting there was eliminating fossil fuels from its energy portfolio. And one of the biggest users of fossil fuels were the company’s kitchens.
“Commercial kitchens use about five times more energy than an office building,” says Katie Ross, global real estate and facilities sustainability lead at Microsoft. About 80% of the cooking equipment in Microsoft’s kitchens relied on gas, so all that cooking and the huge energy suck translated into a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. “So we had a pretty big hill to climb to make that switch,” Ross says.
This first phase of Microsoft’s all-electric kitchen transition has just opened. It’s a 13,000-square-foot LEED Platinum-rated green building, with 400 pieces of electric kitchen equipment capable of preparing about 1,000 meals a day across 9 dining concepts featuring different kitchens. The space is being used to test out products, processes, and menu items before spreading to more than 77,000 square feet of food preparation and kitchen space for upward of 10,000 meals a day when the full campus expansion begins opening in 2023.
Jodi Smith Westwater is senior services manager for Microsoft’s dining operations, and she oversees more than 100 dining operations across Microsoft’s campus, as well as all its catering and events. “We have hundreds of different menu concepts and thousands of menu items,” she says. “We wanted to make sure that we could still cook it in a way that paid homage to the genre of food and the flavor profile.”
That’s where the wok comes in. Wok cooking is all about heat, fire, and motion. Chefs keep these pans smoking with hot oil, moving almost nonstop and tipping their edges to touch the flames of the stovetop, giving food a characteristic sear and char.
In an all-electric kitchen, there’s no flame to touch. And the most energy-efficient form of electric cooking equipment uses induction technology — an energy transfer that requires the pan to be in constant contact with the cooktop below. With no flame and no motion, how could a wok even be used? “That was a nervous point early on,” Westwater says. Finding an alternative proved to be one of the project’s biggest challenges.
To figure out a solution, Microsoft partnered with the commercial kitchen equipment manufacturer Jade Range. Over the course of two years they codeveloped a new kind of wok-cooktop combination that allows both the motion a chef needs and the constant contact induction cooking requires. The novel wok system, with a pan that fits inside a bowl-shaped cooking surface, has stood up to side-by-side taste tests among Microsoft workers, comparing gas and induction wok dishes. “We were really pleased with the results,” Westwater said. “Nobody could tell visually or through the flavor profile or even say, frankly, which one they liked best.”
The wok wasn’t the only piece of equipment that needed tweaking for use in an all-electric kitchen. Westwater says Microsoft has codeveloped a handful of other pieces of kitchen equipment, including induction ranges that are now being used on the kitchen’s sauté lines, and electric alternatives have replaced flame-based pizza ovens. Induction griddles have even managed to replace fire-based grills, keeping grill marks intact.
Some of Microsoft’s food branding, though, did not survive the transition. “One of the concepts that we have historically had on campus is a concept that we called Flame, and it’s all about charbroiled meats and proteins,” Westwater says. “We definitely didn’t want to call it Flame anymore.” The all-electric version of Flame is now known as Grilled.
Aside from codeveloping brand-new kitchen equipment, another major challenge for this transition was retraining chefs how to cook without gas. “We have hundreds of culinarians trained in historic cooking methods,” Westwater says. “Certainly cooking on an induction wok is different and requires different therm times and techniques to cook the same foods.”
But the company still has a long way to go. When its full campus expansion is complete, the different types of cuisine and the number of menu items will grow. Westwater says that pre-pandemic, the company’s food services had 40,000 transactions a day, from meals to grab-and-go snacks.
This first kitchen, with its 1,000 meals a day, is its own kind of beta test. Not just for how to handle a much bigger daily lunch rush, but how an all-electric kitchen can, as Westwater hopes, “disrupt the industry.”