My Favorite Gear November 2005
David Arnold - November 2005
Equipment Suckers for good looks, versatility, and smart design, chefs agree that nothin' spells lovin' like a well-built oven.
New York City
When Brian Young decided to make a Peking duck, he was determined to produce an authentic one. He ate his way through the best duck houses in Beijing and took detailed measurements of their equipment. He poached "the duck guy," a master of the Peking duck procedure, from one hot spot and brought two Chinese artisans back to the United States to build his own oven. Fueled with gas and a mixture of peach, cherry, and apple woods, Mainland's duck oven is the size of a small shed. Its gas burners, giant square rings of flame set in the lower part of the oven, put out a massive amount of heat. "The open gas flame is important for drying the skin," says Young, "and the fruit wood adds flavor." Ten ducks can be cooked at a time, suspended from imported purpose-built hooks that allow the birds to be turned and moved around during cooking. "Cooking ducks in this oven takes a lot of skill and effort," Young says with a smile, "but the results are worth it. To my knowledge we have the only one in North America."
Vikram Garg is drawn to the tandoor because "it's one of the oldest types of ovens in existence, and one of the most versatile." The jar-shaped units are made of clay surrounded by insulation; they're fired from below but loaded from the top. Garg has a portable charcoal-fired model he uses off-site, and he operates two gas and lava rock heated models at IndeBleu. One of these kitchen ovens stays at medium temperatures for meats; "medium temperature" is a relative term, as all tandoors operate at much higher temperatures than most ovens. The second tandoor stays at high temperatures for breads; pieces of dough slapped by hand onto the interior vertical surface of the oven cook in less than a minute. "It takes about three weeks to learn to cook bread in the tandoor," Garg says. "The first time you try it, all the hair gets burned off your hand and it looks like wax, unless you bump into the rim of the oven and get a nice tiger-stripe burn."
Kent Rathbun has a Wood Stone oven in each of his three restaurants--Abacus and Jasper's in the Dallas area and Jasper's in The Woodlands, Texas. Wood Stone makes both wood-fired masonry ovens and gas-fired ovens that they claim yield "good-as-wood" results. A radiant burner within the oven mimics an open flame, and huge infrared burners underneath the oven allow for quick temperature recovery if the oven starts to cool. Rathbun favors the wood-fired model. "I like the flavor from wood, and I've got plenty of it to burn," he says. He uses a combination of oak and hickory, putting in one log at a time to regulate heat. Logs are burned at the back of the oven, so cooks must frequently reposition items to even out the cooking. Rathbun sees this requirement as an advantage--it keeps them all attentive. "It's a great piece," Rathbun says. "If you're just cooking pizzas with it, you're missing out. It has fantastic heat; we finish foie gras in it, we finish birds in it, we even finish our Texas peach crisp directly on the hearth."
Tao Asian Bistro
Sam Hazen says Rational's combi-ovens are the heart of his kitchens and definitely worth the money. He appreciates their smart design features, including rounded internal corners for easy cleaning, a simple self-clean cycle with supplied detergent, a self-contained wash-down hose, two counter-rotating convection fans for even heat and quick cool-down, and a chef-friendly interface that stores multiple cooking programs in a variety of languages. It even has mobile oven racks that allow him to prep a whole load of food and simply roll it in and out. "The only problem with the oven, besides needing 22 inches of clearance on either side," he says, "is that most chefs simply don't understand how to maximize its performance."
New York City
Doug Psaltis loves his Labesse-Giraudon rotisserie. "It's the top-of-the-line and looks fantastic in chrome and blue enamel," Psaltis says, "and it also works better than any other rotisserie." He attributes the unit's magic to its ceramic wick burners, similar to--but much larger than--the ones you might see on an old-style Coleman lantern. "The heat output and temperature profile are better than standard gas radiants," he says. His rotisserie can handle four spits horizontally or six vertically. Each spit can be adjusted independently, allowing the chef to set different heat-to-meat distances. One of Psaltis' favorite features is the rotisserie's drip-pan spigot, which allows him to drain cooking juices for re-basting. On the down side, he says, the rotisserie "is tough on the operator--like standing in front of a wall of fire."
Christopher Lee can't wait for his new Hold-o-Mat oven to arrive. These small Swiss-made ovens provide precise, even, low-temperature heat and have a three-setting humidity control that allows foods of different textures to be cooked and held in optimal condition for long periods of time. The Hold-o-Mat KTM model comes with a built-in food temperature probe and can be programmed to cook completely unattended. A typical program would start at 230°F for 10 minutes, cook the food at 35 degrees above desired final internal temperature until that temperature is reached, and then hold the item perfectly for hours. "The longer the food goes, the better it gets," says Lee. "Plus, the Hold-o-Mat doesn't take up anymore room in my kitchen than a large microwave."