Recipe for sustainability: Inside Microsoft’s new electric food hall, where there’s no cooking with gas

Microsoft chef Jevic Acain works on an electric wok at Pacific Rim, a culinary concept at the new One Esterra Food Hall at the company’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

In the early days of Microsoft, Bill Gates and Paul Allen were so focused on getting their software company up and running, the notion of stopping to eat a proper meal was hardly ever a thought.

Gates has famously discussed his penchant at the time for fast food and long hours. In the 2019 Netflix documentary “Inside Bill’s Brain,” he even said that he used to pour Tang drink mix powder on his hand and lick it off to give himself an energy boost while working.

More than 40 years later, employees at the company’s sprawling Redmond, Wash., headquarters campus and other office locations don’t just stop to eat, they do it at fancy in-house food halls that run the gamut of culinary offerings.

And now they’re set to do it even more sustainably.

One Esterra is a new Microsoft office building that opened at the end of March, adjacent to where the company is building its new East Campus. The LEED Platinum certified building features a 100% electric food hall, a first for Microsoft and a proving ground for what’s to come across the company as the tech giant aims to be carbon negative by 2030.

Microsoft’s One Esterra is a green building where sustainability efforts in the kitchen are a pilot project for the company’s massive new East Campus, under construction not far away. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

During a tour this week, GeekWire watched chefs work across 13,200 square feet of all-electric cooking space at nine custom eateries, equipped to prepare more than 1,000 meals a day without lighting a single flame.

Commercial kitchens use about five times more energy than an office building, according to Katie Ross, global real estate sustainability lead for Microsoft. She first started thinking about the switch to electric five years ago, and faced the daunting task of replacing equipment that was 80% gas.

“If you’re trying to electrify an entire building, and you’ve done the mechanical systems, pulling out gas from kitchens is kind of a last step” Ross said. “And it’s the hardest.”

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In a competitive tech landscape, even one that has gone partially remote and hybrid during the pandemic, there is still a need to feed hungry software engineers at the office. Microsoft prides itself on the culture it’s created around food and its dining experiences.

Microsoft was keen on keeping the showmanship front and center at One Esterra. Here, nixtamalized corn is ground to make masa, a maize dough used for making tortillas, tamales and more, at an eatery also called Masa. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

“Certainly electric cooking is not new,” said Jodi Smith Westwater, senior services manager for Microsoft dining operations. “But the culinary field is incredibly steeped in tradition and authentic cooking methodologies, which are very fire forward.”

Rather than focus on what it might lose by transitioning away from gas cooking, Microsoft focused on four areas where there was no room to compromise: diversity of food offerings; speed of preparation; authenticity of what was being cooked; and the exhibition of it all.

“We didn’t want to put in a wall of microwaves and say, ‘There’s your electric kitchen,’” Westwater said.

The new equipment is anything but that. At the Pacific Rim eatery, one of the more unique pieces was on display — an electric wok created for Microsoft in partnership with commercial manufacturer Jade Range.

Rather than being in constant motion across an open flame the way woks are traditionally used to create stir fries and the like, the new wok sits within an induction cooking surface that surrounds the pan. It heats up very fast, and it’s highly efficient.

Microsoft worked with a commercial kitchen manufacturer on several iterations of an electric wok. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
Chef Jevic Acain holds up a pork fried rice dish he prepared on the electric wok. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Chef Jevic Acain whipped up a pork fried rice dish for GeekWire that looked and smelled and eventually tasted like it came off a tried-and-tested flame-heated wok. Adjusting the heat slightly on the equipment, watching for searing, Acain achieved the char and flavor that is typical of wok cooking.

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“The fact that I couldn’t see the flame is what I had to get used to,” Acain said of the switch from gas. “Typically, when I’m cooking, if I see the flame I can kind of gauge in my head, ‘OK, I’m way too hot or way too low. Here, it doesn’t tell me so all I’m really looking for now is the reaction on the pan.”

He said looking at that food reaction and cooking with electric has made him a better chef.

The new wok is apparently working for those who are eating off of it, too. To demonstrate that it was unwilling to compromise on the authenticity of food, Microsoft conducted taste tests over the last two years. It pitted electric-made wok dishes against those prepared using gas. Employees couldn’t tell the difference.

A charbroil concept on the Microsoft campus called Flame is now “Grilled” in the all-electric food hall. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

They might be able to tell the difference visually, for now, on meats that are no longer charbroiled over an open flame. A concept on campus called Flame is now called Grilled at the electric dining hall. But electric tech is on the way to give those meats and proteins the necessary char aesthetic.

After a tour of all the culinary concepts at One Esterra, I sat down with Westwater and Ross for a sustainably minded feast sampling Latin, Asian and American cuisines, wraps, sandwiches, veggie dishes and more.

After eating, it was easy to forget that old slogan, “Now you’re cooking with gas.” How Americans were ever convinced that that catchphrase made sense is explained well in this Mother Jones piece, which gets into just how dirty cooking with gas is.

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Maybe “It’s electric, and eclectic” could be a good substitute for a new era of sustainably minded food preparation.

Microsoft employees can order ahead from any of the nine One Esterra eateries, pay and then pick up the food at a station called To-Go. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Both women remain hungry for their efforts to spread beyond One Esterra. That’ll happen when the East Campus begins opening next year and 77,000 square-feet of food preparation space to serve approximately 10,000 meals a day will be all electric.

And they hope it will happen across the culinary industry and society. As Microsoft does much of the heavy lifting on co-developing equipment, building out spaces and training workers, they’re eager to share learnings.

“To me the most exciting element to this is the potential ripple effect we have on culinary, restaurants, chefs, on the industry as a whole,” Ross said. “Because if we can do it here with 1,000 transactions a day there’s really no reason anyone couldn’t do the same thing.”

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