Chefs and business partners Tom Lo and Tom Lei are no strangers to a hot kitchen. In their restaurants — one in Forest Hills, Spy C, serving Sichuan and Hunan dishes, and their newest place in Chelsea, Chi Restaurant and Bar — they’re cooking with upward of 100,000 to 150,000 British thermal units (BTUs). Such high heat brings to the dish “wok hei,” or breath of the wok, the flavors from the smoke and Maillard reaction (the chemical reaction that gives browned food flavor) that defines countless Chinese dishes. It’s just not possible to achieve that with a standard restaurant oven’s 25,000 to 50,000 BTUs, he says, or, for that matter, a home oven’s 8,000 to 12,000 BTUs.
Like many of the city’s chefs, the fate of gas ovens in restaurant cooking has been front of mind as the topic surges around the country and in New York. Turns out, they’re bad for the environment and not great for us — for children in particular, in that they’re linked to an uptick in asthma. Okay, so it’s probably a good idea to phase out gas ovens in homes. But gas ovens in restaurant kitchens? They’re likely here to stay for now.
Here’s how we got to this internet freakout over gas ovens — and a scare that they might be phased out in restaurants. First, the dust-up resurrected across the internet on Monday, when U.S. Consumer Product Safety commissioner Richard Trumka Jr. told Bloomberg that the agency would consider a ban on the installation of new gas stoves among other options to mitigate the effect of toxic fumes. By Wednesday, his boss had walked back the announcement, and even President Joe Biden said he didn’t support banning gas stoves.
On Tuesday, Gov. Kathy Hochul weighed in in support of phasing out gas during her State of the State address. Then, the New York Post reported that a gas oven ban “applied to residential, commercial and mixed-use buildings, with no exceptions,” according to spokesperson Hazel Crampton-Hays. Translation: New York restaurant kitchens were out of luck when it came to gas ovens because they wouldn’t be able to use them in new construction or buildouts.
Turns out, “no exceptions” is likely bunk, according to the governor’s spokesperson on energy and the environment, Katy Zielinski. The governor’s proposal is focused on new construction, requiring zero-emission for smaller buildings by 2025 and larger ones by 2028. And overall, in about a decade, no fossil-fuel heating equipment would be allowed. However, “it does not apply to gas stoves,” she says. And as far as new construction, “both proposals would allow for exemptions that would potentially include commercial kitchens.”
Even influencer cookbook author Alison Roman got in on the gas-oven discussion, suggesting over Twitter that her more than 400K followers ask her anything about induction cooking, her oven by default. Going gasless wasn’t her choice, she says. “I couldn’t have gas in my house unless I installed an outside tank,” she writes, “which, no thanks! So I was forced into it, but then it became a choice.”
New York City already had this discussion. Under Mayor Bill De Blasio, City Council voted to ban gas in new construction — which covers gut renovations that require new building permits. It allows exceptions for businesses like restaurants, bakeries, laundromats, “and residential buildings where at least half the units are classified as affordable.” The law takes effect for buildings under seven stories in December and for taller buildings in 2027.
Few restaurants have gone all induction or electric. Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo use induction at Frankie’s 457 Spuntino in Cobble Hill, due to space and building constraints. And newish Brooklyn pizzeria Oma Grassa from Adam Baumgart uses electric ovens for pizza, which is pretty of the moment. His oven from PizzaMaster is “one of the best” and “they’re all electric.” And “it’s much cheaper” when faced with a full buildout to plan for electricity than install gas lines.
Despite that it’s less environmentally friendly, most chefs are just wedded to gas. Over in Park Slope, at Lore, “We can regulate the way we cook to the way we need it, and we can control the costs,” chef and owner Jay Kumar says about cooking with gas. Though he’s less dismissive of induction, “electric is the last option because when working on the line, we cannot turn it off whenever required as we need constant heat,” he says. Besides, “the food tastes much better because of the flames.”
Back in Chelsea at Chi, Lo references a single burner in his cooking lineup. “Cooking on a gas stove isn’t the best way to cook Chinese food,” he says. “It’s the only way.”