My Favorite Gear January/February 2012
Scott Crawford / January 2012
Designing a kitchen from scratch is a chef’s dream come true. Scott Crawford details how he streamlined the operation of a major 150 room resort hotel in North Carolina’s Research Triangle and cites the productive workhorses that deliver day after day.
Design and build a new kitchen. How’s that for a first assignment! When I arrived at The Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary, North Carolina, just outside Raleigh, in spring of 2009, they wanted a totally new kitchen, even though the property had only been open only two years. Since the kitchen needed to service our signature restaurant Herons, in addition to the bar and lounge, plus in-room dining, I had to create a large space with plenty of horsepower to meet the high demands of all three operations. At the same time, the kitchen had to be aesthetically pleasing to guests peering in through the etched glass window that separates it from Herons. After analyzing the existing space for several months, I drafted an outline of how I wanted the kitchen and the service stations to look, feel, and flow. I sketched a very meticulous rendition of my ideal kitchen and sent it to Al Berger of Berger Alliance Food Equipment in Dallas, the man I believed would be the best designer for the project. Berger and his team greatly appreciated the many detailed specifics I included in my drawing, and the finished kitchen looks almost exactly like the original drawing I gave them.
I had several meetings with my chef de cuisine, Steven Devereaux Greene, to get his input on various details and features, as he is in the kitchen every day for lunch and dinner service. This was an incredible learning experience because it forced us to think strategically about what we valued most in a restaurant kitchen. We compiled a wish list and presented it to Berger. For example, I had always wanted plate-warming cabinets on every station to ensure dishes would be held at the perfect temperature for service, while Greene wanted utensil wells with flowing water on every station to keep spoons and utensils clean at all times. While we evaluated features most important to us, we began to wonder why kitchen designers don’t consult with chefs more often—it only makes sense to tailor a kitchen to meet the demands and specifications for each chef and restaurant.
We decided the kitchen space would be best utilized if we opened it up by removing several walls and installing a cooking suite. I had a positive experience with Montague in the past, and Berger was very familiar with their equipment as well, so Montague became the perfect match for the new kitchen. Once we chose to create a cooking suite, I then had to determine how best to configure it for successful execution of three meal periods for three different outlets. One of the biggest frustrations my team had experienced was plating refined dishes for Herons at the same time they plated a burger for the bar. We agreed it would be best to use one side of the suite to cook all food for the bar, lounge, and in-room dining, while the other side would be solely devoted to the much more elevated food served in Herons. However, all cooks would be trained on both sides of the suite.
French tops were an obvious choice for me. Frankly, I don’t know how chefs cook on anything else. But the true workhorse on both sides of the suite and my personal favorite is the plancha. I love a good plancha—all of it is usable cooking space! It creates the perfect searing temperature without having to use pans, and it’s easy to keep clean.
The plancha has two sides, so we turn one side to almost the highest point for hard sears, which works well for a piece of meat that has already been cooked sous-vide and just needs a quick crisp. Then we turn the other side down to the lowest temperature to sear something like a fennel confit. We also use the cooler part of the plancha to sear fish, like snapper from right off the coast of North Carolina. We cook it slowly, skin side down on one side only, weighing it down with a small sizzle pan to keep the skin in contact with the plancha so it gets very crisp.
We created our protein stations by placing a rather large plancha next to a small grill on both sides of the suite. These stations also include two French burners and a Frymaster. One of the last features added to the suite was the induction burner at the finishing end to keep sauces at precise temperatures. In addition, the refrigerated tops and drawers surrounding the cooking suite are custom-built and hold incredible amounts of mise en place.
Because of our high volume, which can be as many as 400 covers a day, having adequate storage for food items and small wares was vital. And, because the entire kitchen is visible to our guests dining in Herons, it was equally important to be able to store these items out of their sight. In order to meet both of these needs, we requested two entire walls of stainless-steel cabinets. Also, to create a greater sense of space within the kitchen, we proposed creating fitted cutting boards to cover the sinks when they’re not being used so as not to lose valuable counter space for prepping and plating.
Berger and his team began designing and creating the cooking suite and all of the custom stainless-steel parts in the early summer of 2010. When they were completed and the pieces were assembled at Alliance Food Equipment’s warehouse in Dallas, I flew there in July to inspect the equipment and final product. It was amazing to see our ideas come to fruition. Berger’s team then disassembled the entire kitchen and shipped it to The Umstead for installation. Although we had seen the final product in Dallas, it was truly remarkable to stand in the kitchen in the hotel for the first time. After spending nearly $1 million, we reopened Herons for dinner on September 9, 2010.
Another part of the renovation included building a 600-square-foot china room for more than 3,000 pieces of china, including custom pieces from Glass Studio, Steelite, Bauscher, and FOH. This room was designed and set up to “shop” for china, banquet props, and amenity glass. OXO containers keep our dry food pantry extremely well organized.
The four pieces of major equipment listed below are what we rely on most, both to maintain the quality of our volume operations and to achieve the refinement necessary for Herons.
Victory Fish File This looks like a filing cabinet, but the drawers are filled with whole fish, as well as oysters, clams, and crab, all on ice. As the ice melts, the water is drained through a small hole behind the drawers, preventing any odors from permeating the kitchen or any water from leaking onto the floor. The fish file is also easy to clean and takes up very little space. At least a third of our menu is fish and seafood, so their handling and storage are very important. We receive the seafood from the nearby coast daily. Fish like striped bass and snapper come in whole and fit perfectly in the drawers. Then we butcher them and vacuum seal them. We’re going in and out of these easy-access drawers constantly.
PolyScience Immersion Circulators We have at least three of these incredibly precise machines running constantly. I love to use our circulators for eggs, like for my crispy pork trotters with poached asparagus, glazed morel mushrooms, aged Sherry, and 62 degree organic local eggs. Eggs go in right in the shell; everything else is vacuum sealed first in our Koch Ultravac machine, which offers the most consistent vacuum, from heavy compression of fruits and vegetables to delicate mushrooms.
Greene uses the circulators for vegetable cookery, rabbit confit, and his 48 hour short ribs. He has a dish on the menu now of vanilla spiced sea bass with fingerling potatoes, fennel confit, and lobster broth. The fennel is slowly cooked in vacuum with fennel juice, butter, salt, and herbs. We also use circulators to hold sauces at precise temperatures during service—for example, our coconut espuma served with butternut squash soup, curried apples, candied ginger, and macadamia nuts.
Blodgett Double-Decker Combi Ovens We can’t live without steam-injected ovens to create terrines and custards. These are true workhorses with delicate accuracy when adding steam for custards, like our oatmeal and sweet potato custard. Or for quick steaming our foie gras terrine served with maple cornbread, smoked date jam, pickled apples, and roasted hazelnuts. We roast chicken and other poultry in it. We sous-vide pheasant and then roast it. We use steam injection to keep the breast moist and then turn it up at the last minute to crisp the skin. We sell a lot of locally raised pheasant and squab.
The two ovens are stacked on top of each other and we can set the temperature in each one. We bake all our breakfast pastries in the combi as well as our savory scones—goat cheese and apricot or cranberry and pecan. These ovens are constantly full, and people are always waiting to use them.
Alto-Shaam Smoker Oven This creates excellent smoke flavor at ultra-low temperatures. We use the smoker for both cold smoking (dates for smoked date jam; butter for finishing vegetables and sauces) and hot smoking (Eastern Carolina barbecued pork). It’s possible to smoke in the combi, but you can get a lower heat in the smoker. I can get down to the 175 to 200 degree range and smoke low and slow. We do our own barbecued pork butts for pulled pork—very popular for parties. Because this is a double decker, I can be cold smoking something delicate like butter in the bottom and in the top hot smoking barbecue.