When Sherif Tadros saw a rapid-cook oven in action eight years ago, he couldn’t stop thinking about the possibilities. “There are a lot of advantages to a new generation oven,” he says.
Those advantages were put to the test this past May at the opening of the Pizza U owner’s quick-service outlet in Montreal, where personal pizzas are made fresh on the spot. The kicker is they can be cooked in two minutes and 15 seconds.
“Everybody wants things fresh, and they want them yesterday,” Tadros says. “When Turbochef came out with its conveyor rapid-cook oven, I knew I had a concept that would work. It was like the cherry on the ice-cream sundae.”
The lauded concept uses a combination of microwave, convection and airflow technologies as a heat source that cooks faster than a convection oven. This is not to be confused with accelerated cooking (see sidebar below).
Tadros’ 4-foot by 2.5-foot countertop unit is “hassle-free.” And, even though it cost almost twice the price of a conventional pizza oven (at more than $8,500), he estimates, once you factor in the operational savings, payback sets in after approximately a year and a half. “You don’t need to get caught up in construction. This particular model [the HhC2020 ventless conveyor oven] has its own catalytic converter and ventilation system, so it reuses the hot air, which saves a lot of cost. There was a huge difference in insurance premiums over a traditional oven,” he adds. “Once you put in a hood and venting for a pizza oven, insurers classify that as a fire risk.”
While Tadros recognized the advantages of rapid-cook technology from the outset, it’s been slow to catch on in North America (outside of the sub sandwich takeouts of the world). But new applications are proving rapid-cook can be much more than just a high-priced toaster oven.
From fast-food outlets and kiosks to healthcare facilities and family restaurants, adventurous operators are finding rapid-cook technology an easy option that doesn’t sacrifice quality. Depending on the model, rapid-cook machines can toast sandwiches, cook pizzas, roast meats, bake potatoes and produce cookies and pastries in less than five minutes. Units come in all shapes and sizes, from conveyor style to small footprint countertop models to machines with icon-driven, pre-programmable touchpads. “If you want operations to go smoothly, this technology is never too complicated. Staff can only press two buttons, because I’ve already programmed and locked the system,” explains Tadros.
The program settings can be easily transferred to another unit, which is another advantage for a franchisor, such as Tadros. “Everything about belt speed, heat, airflow, et cetera, can be downloaded onto a card, so if I put in another unit in another store, you just upload the information and you’re done. New franchisees don’t have to worry,” he says.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to adoption is not the technology or the price. It’s convincing chefs rapid-cook ovens can deliver the same results as conventional ones. Jason Rosso’s experience working with the systems changed his mind. In fact, as the recently appointed corporate chef for Milestones Canada, based in Vaughan, Ont., he’s looking at how rapid-cook technology can play a part in streamlining operations in his kitchens. “I can see using it on the line to finish a steak or cook an apple crumble,” he says.
When he first tested the technology four years ago, Rosso realized it could revolutionize cooking. “Whether you’re talking Merrychef or Turbo-chef, there are some amazing pieces of equipment. And the great thing about it is it’s all pretty much plug and play.”
Since the early days, Rosso explored many cooking possibilities with rapid-cook ovens, from steaks and whole chickens to chocolate soufflé. “With this technology you have an opportunity to cook at a very high level very quickly. And there’s no difference in the quality outcome from a regular oven, but you also get time and productivity benefits.”
When Jason Bangerter, executive chef for Oliver & Bonacini Canteen and Luma restaurants, was involved in an Iron Chef Accelerated Cooking competition using Merrychef technology four years ago, he was pleasantly surprised. “You definitely had to change the way you cooked things,” he admits. “But we did a soufflé in one minute and cooked chicken from raw in four. The power was incredible.”
Having spent time mastering the art of rapid cooking, Bangerter sees a future for the technology beyond sandwich shops. “A high-end restaurant could have one or two dishes programmed into the system and get them out quickly. It would be great for banquets where there are choice menus. When someone decides at the last minute they want halibut instead of steak, for example, you can get them something quickly. If a steak is well done by accident, you can get another one to them in about six minutes, rather than 20. It could also work well in a satellite kitchen, because it makes it easier for one person to produce menu items.”
The time for rapid-cooking technology is definitely coming of age, adds Patrick Watt, a principal with A Day in Life Foodservice Development, a foodservice consulting firm in St. John, N.B. For the past five years, a growing number of his accounts have begun using rapid-cook ovens to supplement or support shoulder periods in operations. “That’s where they really come in handy. If you only have 10 people where there’s usually 100, you can fresh cook items without holding them for hours. Nursing homes are putting them in little canteens so families can take their loved ones for toasted sandwiches or chicken wings. Healthcare operations are also considering rapid cooking as a way to move from bulk feeding to individual room service. And hotels are increasingly looking to them for cooking room-service items.”
Watt is also getting a lot more requests from operators who run concessions at arenas and leisure centres and don’t want fryers. “It’s a nice alternative, because they don’t need a ventilation hood or exhaust system, so it reduces capital costs.”
Meanwhile, rapid-cook technology has long been used to improve food quality and production in public-sector foodservice operations, confirms Sandra Matheson, president of Food Systems Consulting Inc. in Oakville, Ont. “What started off as microwave technology quickly became more multi-task. When convection was added, they suddenly became much more than simply a speed-cooking device. At a recent tradeshow, I saw a new line of countertop combi-oven/steamers from Electrolux that were incredibly versatile.” She notes the pre-programming is especially helpful in healthcare environments. “It’s astounding when you think that a long-term or acute-care facility produces meals seven days a week, three times a day with all sorts of staff; that’s a tremendous number of people that need to get it right.”
Even outside the public sector, rapid cooking can remedy staffing issues plaguing the industry. “You can lock recipes into the machine and even a young kid on staff with no skills can produce a finished product exactly the way you want it. With a shrinking talent pool of people who are able to cook, we have to have products that cook for us. We need to look at technology to help us pick up the slack,” says Milestones’ Rosso.