Chefs know ovens are the centerpiece of the kitchen. Whether it’s conventional range and convection systems or the latest rapid cook and/or combi-oven innovation, it’s an investment decision they take seriously.
In talking to operators however, there is a divide between lovers of traditional cooking methods and those keen to try the next best thing. Much of that boils down to types and sizes of operations as much as personal taste.
Home on the Range
Overall, ranges are a relatively static category given the technology is fairly basic, says David Zabrowski, general manager for the Food Service Technology Center in San Ramon, CA. “That said, it doesn’t mean innovation isn’t happening in that quarter. One company pushing unique ideas in range design is [California-based] Hestan Commercial. They’re trying to break the mould for good quality equipment for high-end chefs, coming up with interesting nuances in design. Montague (in California) is doing interesting work with cold rails and other practical elements.”
Convection is also making great strides towards improved efficiency. Whereas ovens once averaged 40 to 44 per cent efficiency ratings, they are now reaching 60 per cent, thanks to design improvements in the way of insulation, ventilation control and air flow, Zabrowski says. “All changes aren’t immediately apparent as manufacturers strive to meet Energy Star specs, but they are happening.”
For executive chef Michael Steh of Chase Hospitality Group in Toronto — owners of The Chase, Littlefin, Colette, Grand Café, Kasa Moto and The Chase Fish & Oyster — when it comes to equipment choices, it’s all about conventional appliances. In fact, you won’t find a combi- or rapid-cook oven in any of its operations. Instead, Steh sticks to tried-and-true range suites from Mississauga, Ont.-based Garland, some of which he inherited, while others have been purchased as the company has expanded. “I stayed with Garland suites mainly because of the wide availability of service.”
His reasoning is simple. “The less components involved, the less likely it is to break and the easier things are to fix. The more technology you introduce, the more likely fixing it will cost more,” he says.
However, Steh appreciates the Wi-Fi capabilities of “some pretty sweet baking ovens” from Swedish company Sveba-Dahlen, which he purchased at a cost of $35,000 to $40,000 per unit. “The Wi-Fi gives us a bit of time because we can use it to connect to the ovens at 4 a.m. and not have to come in until 5 a.m.”
The Chase is also home to two Sveba-Dahlen mini deck ovens ($25,000 each). “I love the decks over convection for cooking certain dishes that need crisping at the top. You can have the top deck at a different temperature than the bottom stone,” he explains. “And they are a perfect fit given we only have about 1,000-sq.-ft. of kitchen space for cooking and refrigeration equipment.”
Combi- and Rapid-Cook News
Zabrowski says there are “changes galore” on the combi- and rapid-cook oven front as manufacturers bring in much more robust and flexible features. One area of improvement has been the user-friendliness of the controls, he notes. “Sometimes they’re too crude or too complicated. Manufacturers are doing a much better job of touchscreen and Android-type control platforms that are much more intuitive.”
A major showcase for the latest combi and convection oven technology can be found at CFB (Canadian Forces Base) Borden in Ontario. It has recently unveiled what it claims to be the “most high-tech kitchen in Canada”, serving between 1,500 and 2,000 people per meal. The kitchen, prep, server and dishwashing area account for 35,000 sq. ft. of the operations.
Gary Lummis, president of Lummis & Co. foodservice consultancy in Fredericton, N.B., says the new kitchen houses $5-million worth of equipment. “And there is not one single range in there.”
The kitchen has a combination of Convotherm boiler combi-ovens and double convection ovens from Garland. “All of them have programmable controls, as well as self-cleaning and self-diagnostic features,” says Lummis. One particular feature of the Convotherm that stands out for Lummis is the Crisp & Tasty feature that evacuates moist air at the end of a cooking cycle to crisp the product.
Lummis notes that for the project, they opted for gas boiler combis instead of a boilerless model. By way of explanation, boiler combis produce steam injected into the oven, which can reach a 97-per-cent saturation of steam in a gaseous form. Boilerless models spritz water into the chamber as the oven heats up to create moisture in a liquid form.
Down to Size
A major trend is the availability of half-size countertop combi systems, which has opened new avenues for smaller operators to enjoy the benefits of the technology at a reasonable price, Zabrowski says. “The nice thing is you can buy a mini combi for just a couple of thousand more than a countertop steamer and do more with it. A lot are also being implemented with catalysts so they can operate vent-free, depending on local code requirements”
Doug Feltmate, owner of St. Martha’s Brasserie d’Orleans in Ottawa says 60 per cent of his menu is handheld by two mid-size Rational White Efficiency stacked countertop models that cost about $20,000 apiece and hold six full size pans. The balance of the menu items are produced in a Wood Stone Fire Deck pizza oven.“We can use the combis for everything from sous vide and smoking to overnight roasting and finishing.”
He plans to take advantage of the wireless functionality when he opens a second location where he plans to add two more Rational ovens. “Then we will be able to link them all.”
The Power of Two
As combi-ovens shrink and rapid-cook ovens add functionality, operators are increasingly turning to configurations using a combi for pre-production and rapid-cook systems for finishing. “They make a powerful combination,” Zabrowski says. “TurboChef’s i-Series and Merrychef’s eikon series are introducing some great stuff. A couple of newer products offer versions with hearthstones for artisanal pizza making.”
Patrick Watt, principal with Day in Life foodservice consultancy in St. John, NB., confirms there is growing adoption of rapid-cook and combi on the part of smaller operators. “Before it was mainly chain operations and hotels with more money to spend. Now they come with an acceptable price tag so are moving to critical mass. Throwing in a TurboChef or two at $9,000 apiece is less expensive than expanding your operations.”
Sam Rossi, CEO of Rasco Food Inc. in Ottawa says his Merrychef rapid cook ovens are a mainstay in his cafeteria operation, alongside his Rational White Efficiency Self-Cooking Centre. The 10-pan combi unit costs $23,000; while the rapid cook ovens cost $7,000 apiece. “I can boil, bake and roast in the Rational and do the finishing in the rapid cook oven. They do a fantastic job and save us a lot of time and labour during production. We love it.”
Whether opting for traditional or high-tech — or a combination thereof — Steh says the decision is more about substance than style. “Ultimately, every equipment choice we make is based on efficiency, consistency, maintenance and your style of cooking.”
Written By: Denise Deveau
Volume 29, Number 3