Men of La Plancha

David Arnold - October 2005

The culinary Spanish invasion has brought a la plancha menu items to restaurants across the country, but what exactly constitutes "a la plancha" and what's the best equipment for it?

Our concepts of plancha cooking derive from a rustic Spanish cooking implement. This "ur-plancha" is an outdoor, wood-fired rectangular griddle that gets very hot directly over the heat source but is drastically cooler toward the edges. Its thin surface responds quickly to heat application, gently warping from the concentration of extreme temperature and creating a convex surface that assists in grease runoff. With its gutter-less design, this plancha offers unobstructed access for scraping and moving food; through judicious food placement, the heat applied to a dish can vary infinitely, accomplishing culinary miracles without the use of pots or pans.

Modern equipment can emphasize different characteristics of this "ur-plancha" to produce different results and to suit different cooking styles. Until recently, most chefs in the United States have had to content themselves with standard griddles; the only planchas available were add-ons to pricey Molteni and Bonnet custom cooking suites. These units are fairly small—too small to service a whole tapas ba—and, in accordance with U.S. codes, they're electric because their four-sided gutters don't allow proper ventilation of flue gases. How you cook determines which features are important and what equipment to buy. To help you decide, we'll look at two chefs cooking "a la plancha" on standard American griddles and two chefs who pioneered the new "American planchas."

José Andrés, the Washington, D.C. chef and Spanish food guru (see "The Gifts of Gab," page 91), demystifies the plancha: "In Spain any hot flat thing is a plancha." While Andrés claims to have no romantic notions about planchas, he considers them "the perfect cooking tool and extremely empowering" because they can manage a large number of orders at once, without mistakes and with nary a pan in sight. "When I came to the United States and saw cooks in diners making all their dishes on the griddle, I figured, ‘they use planchas here too,'" and Andrés admits that when he's behind a plancha he feels like the "king of the world." Here in the States, Andrés uses standard chrome top Vulcan griddles with thermostatic controls and Snorkel convection oven bases in all his restaurants. The chrome surface is very pricey, but Andrés loves it because it is extremely easy to clean and it provides excellent food release with no flavor transfer between dishes. "At the end of the night, I can see my face reflected in the cooktop, and that kind of cleanliness is very important to me." Chrome tops with their reflective surface also feel cooler to the operator than black griddles, which radiate more heat. Unlike what you might expect from a Spanish chef, Andrés does not establish a heat gradient on his griddles but instead maintains an even temperature over the entire surface. An even temperature allows him to mentally divide the surface into a grid of identical squares into which he places individual orders.

Andy Nusser of Casa Mono in New York City uses a Jade Titan Fire and Ice system—a throttle-controlled stainless-steel griddle mounted over a two-drawer refrigerated base—to prepare many of the tapas on his menu. The refrigerated base provides quick access to prepped ingredients and makes the cooking setup compact and efficient. The griddle is heated by three independently controlled burners. Nusser leaves the left one off, sets the center one on medium, and sets the right one on high, giving him an even temperature gradient essential for the wide range of dishes he cooks. "It's like having a bunch of different sauté pans always waiting for you. I can start a duck breast rendering on the cold side and finish it in a hotter place, or I can cook an order of razor clams superquick on the hot side. Every dish has an ideal spot left-to-right on the surface, and multiple orders can be arranged front-to-back," Nusser explains.

When Bobby Flay wanted a custom-designed chrome top plancha for his new restaurant Bar Americain in New York City, he turned to kitchen designer Jerry Kouveras at Pascoe Jacobs and engineer George McMahon at MagiKitch'n. Flay wanted the high-heat capabilities of Spanish and French planchas, needed a thermostatically controlled system (so the temperature of the cooking surface wouldn't fluctuate with the quantity of food being cooked), and chose a chrome top for both its food-release properties and operator comfort. High temperatures, upwards of 670°F, aren't possible with standard thermostats, so McMann installed high-temperature thermostats that can tolerate 630°F-75°F higher than standard thermostats. The extra heat output also required a redesigning of the griddle's underside to vent the heat away from the controls (which would have melted) and away from the operator (who would have been very uncomfortable). Concerned with the performance of the chrome surface at high temperatures, McMann conducted extensive testing—up to 700°F—to verify that the chrome could take the heat. (To protect expensive chrome griddles, he cautions against the use of abrasive cleaners and advises against banging on the surface with a hard steel spatula.) Of his new toy, Flay says, "I can put a raw oyster on the plancha, get a great crust on it, get it off the plancha with no problem, and still have it be dead raw in the center. That's the kind of performance I'm looking for."

Daniel Boulud is a stickler for equipment. For his new restaurant Daniel Boulud Brasserie at Wynn Las Vegas, he wanted a unit as close to our description of the ideal plancha as possible. He found many of the European planchas on the U.S. market to be too small for his operation, so he teamed up with Jade Range to build exactly what he wanted. His custom-built double plancha—essentially a souped-up version of Jade's standard 36-inch-wide throttle-controlled griddle—has a custom-cast stainless-steel top guttered on three sides to catch grease runoff. The quick-heating top, thinner than Jade's standard one-inch-thick griddle plate, slopes slightly from the center to the edges to facilitate drainage. Though the gutters make the unit eight inches narrower than a standard 36-inch-wide griddle, the cooking surface is still larger than most double planchas. To achieve his desired heat pattern, Boulud commissioned custom burners for his plancha; at full blast the temperature can top 650°F. Boulud didn't want a chrome top on his plancha because, he explains, "Chrome dulls the flavor. I like the traditional steel—the flavor is in the steel." Asked for comment on the steel versus chrome debate, Andrés replies, "I don't want to argue with Daniel. He has very special taste buds."