Cooking with gas — or electricity? Californians wonder how electrification might impact the food we eat
Jul 23, 2023
Chef David Soohoo cooks with a wok over a gas stove in his Sacramento home Thursday, March 2, 2023.
Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
David Soohoo is, first and foremost, a chef. Over the course of decades, he’s owned and run a variety of Sacramento restaurants, like Bamboo and Ming Palace. One lesson he’s learned: It takes more than skillful cooking to succeed. His work also requires a knack for adaptation.
“Life is a challenge,” he said. “And the thing about being a chef is it has never been easy, so I welcome that challenge.”
He learned that first from his dad, a Cantonese master chef who opened Sacramento’s original Tea Cup Cafe in the early 1950s. At the restaurant, they had gas stovetops that burned hot enough to make food in a wok, which traditionally requires flame. But at home, their stove was much less powerful.
So, they got creative. Soohoo said his dad took their cracked, gas-powered water heater, drained it and sawed it in half. Then, he used its burner as a stovetop.
“That burner actually was incredibly hot,” said Soohoo. “You put your wok in there and you can do everything a restaurant can do. That's the way we adapted, and it was unknown…outside of the Chinese community.”
Now, Soohoo said home cooks and chefs like himself are readying themselves for a fast-approaching future without gas. As part of its goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2045, California is working to cut emissions in all parts of life, including the kitchen.
Matt Botill, chief of the Industrial Strategies Division at the California Air Resources Board, said the agency has set a state target for residential appliance sales to be all-electric by 2045. He said this transition helps the state along its journey to cut emissions and with that, improves both indoor and outdoor air quality.
“It's really important that we cut down on our natural gas use and that we don't expand the gas infrastructure so that we're not creating more natural gas demand in the state,” he said.
On a more local scale, dozens of cities have adopted plans for electrification. Some, like Sacramento, have passed ordinances to ban the installation of gas in new buildings alongside local efforts to electrify existing homes.
As these efforts gain traction, they’ve sparked nationwide debate over one appliance in particular: stoves. Many advocates of electrification point to research on the negative health impacts associated with their use and concerns that aging gas appliances will only create more problems in the future. Others say they’re not willing to let gas stovetops go, because other options just aren’t as efficient.
Katie Valenzuela is a city councilmember who worked on Sacramento’s electrification ordinance. She said the change is more than a technological one. For many, it’s cultural, and deeply personal.
“There is a concern about how … you adapt those practices that were passed down from prior generations to this new technology,” she said.
It’s a tricky issue, Soohoo said. He’s worried about a transition that could unintentionally leave cultural cooking styles like his own behind; after all, he’s not the first chef to share concerns about how electrification could impact the wok. But he’s also deeply invested in shaping the future.
“You adapt,” he said. “That’s the best you can do.”
Decades ago, electric stovetops were popular in California households, but that’s changed over the years. A 2020 survey found 70% use gas stoves in the state, a number that’s much higher than the nationwide average of 38%.
This can be partially blamed on successful campaigns led by gas industry leaders to popularize them. But many chefs have also found that these stovetops are more reliable in achieving high heat – especially in a restaurant setting.
“You know, for a full service restaurant, you do 200 covers a night,” said Billy Ngo, the owner of a few Sacramento restaurants including Kru, which mainly focuses on sushi. “You can't cook on an electric stove for 200 people in a four and half hour service.”
On top of Soohoo’s concerns, Ngo said he’s worried about what summertime blackouts could mean for an all-electric kitchen. He also said sales for cold dishes like sushi tend to decline in the winter, so his restaurant relies on selling hot food to bridge that financial gap.
For home cooks, gas and electric stoves pose a different set of problems. In online forums and news pieces about electrification, you can find dozens of questions about the differences between cooking on electric and gas stoves. Soohoo said some of these questions boil down to differences in cultural styles of cooking, which require different kinds of heat.
“For Western cooking, European cooking, because you're working with butter and you're working with sauces … you don't need that much heat,” he said.
In other styles of cooking, like in many Asian and Latin American dishes, he said you’re dealing with vegetables and meats that have been cut into smaller pieces. It makes these dishes particularly “energy frugal,” he said, because they’re cooked quickly with the help of high heat.
“Even the breads are flat,” he said. “This way you have more surface.”
As the city of Sacramento chips away at local electrification efforts, Valenzuela said she’s become familiar with these conversations.
“There's a lot of pros to it, but it is different,” she said of electrification. “How do we make that accessible to people so that people can get there and understand it? You need to have that ongoing technical assistance available, and that has to be an investment.”
She said she’s seen some electrification programs that allow people to opt out of replacing their gas stoves if they’re not interested. But she’s worried about what that means for them, especially as the state moves forward with its goal to phase out gas appliances.
“Particularly in older neighborhoods where those lines are older, there will need to be a lot of improvements made to those lines to keep them safe in general,” she said. “Then what we're doing is we're putting the onus on that household to figure that out in the future, and that's not equitable either.”
Researchers looking at gas stoves have linked them to a vast array of health concerns like respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. One UCLA study found these stoves are a major cause of indoor air pollution and disproportionately impact people of color, who are already more likely to live in polluted areas.
Yifang Zhu, a UCLA researcher and an author of the study, said it’s often a compounding issue for communities of color.
“They are already disproportionately experiencing poor housing conditions, including old and unmaintained gas appliances,” she said. “Those devices tend to emit more pollution as compared to the newer ones.”
If people are going to move away from these devices, Valenzuela said, it’s important to come at them with more than just the science.
“We want to engage the communities first,” she said. “Not just because you need to understand those barriers and those concerns from the beginning [but] so you can design a program to meet their needs.”
All over California, cities are considering this transition on a local scale. Sacramento passed an ordinance that kicked into gear this year, requiring newly constructed residential and commercial buildings that are up to three-stories tall be all electric.
But just like similar efforts in other municipalities, Sacramento’s ordinance allows for some exemptions. An exemption can be offered, for example, if a developer proves it’s infeasible for a project to be all-electric, whether due to high costs or the unavailability of certain technologies.
Valenzuela said these exemptions can also apply to parts of a building where the developer intends to host a restaurant. As a whole, she said the ordinance is limited in its impacts.
“It's a very narrow interpretation,” she said. “It will mean that most new residential buildings will likely not have gas, but I think in all practicality it means that most mixed development buildings, like what we're seeing in downtown, in Midtown, will probably have gas anyways.”
Outside of new construction, there are also efforts to electrify already-existing homes, but they’re still operating on a smaller scale. Despite the frenzy of concerns that have accompanied these efforts, Valenzuela said there’s a lot more work to be done before major changes can happen.
A lot of that, Valenzuela said, will come down to how cities work with their residents and how they “show people what this could look like so that it’s successful,” which could mean anything from group cooking classes to regular meetings.
In the past few years, Soohoo has played a bigger role in the transition himself. He took part in shaping Sacramento’s electric buildings ordinance as a restaurant industry representative. He’s also led classes teaching residents how to cook effectively with electric woks over the years and is considering bringing them back because of all the questions he’s seen arise in conversations about electrification.
Long before these issues became popular, he said he had to figure this out on his own. He remembers buying an electric wok back in the eighties, when he first noticed the pan gaining mainstream popularity among Western consumers in the United States.
But there was a problem: The wok still didn’t get hot enough. He’s kept the electric wok that he bought decades ago at home. It’s a good example of the problems he’s faced in the quest to find a way to do electric wok cooking well.
“Since they don't really ask Chinese chefs, they make this thing shut down at 400 degrees, 425 maybe,” he said. “And what happens is just when I need the energy, it turns off on me.”
So, Soohoo took after his dad. He tampered with the electric wok, allowing it to heat up to a higher temperature than it had been manufactured to reach. He told students in his cooking classes about his adaptations, too.
“What I always do is I take this thermostat and I short it out, simple as that,” he said. “I open it up and I short it so it never shuts off, so it generates enough [heat] for home.”
Soohoo said he still has a lot of questions and doubts that a majority of restaurants can successfully make the transition anytime soon. But he sees the move away from gas cooking at home as a little more straightforward.
For now, at least, he said it’s important to learn from the ways in which communities like his own have adapted — and with that, take those lessons into California’s energy future.
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