A growing choice of combi-ovens means more versatility but also a difficult investment decision. Diane Lane checks out what's hot






The combi-oven is arguably the most versatile piece of kit in today's commercial kitchen. During the last 30 years it has evolved from simple manual models offering three cooking modes - convection, steam and a combination of the two - to multi-programme ovens using cutting edge technology.

The benefits of a combi-oven are indisputable. It can perform various cooking processes including roasting, poaching, grilling and baking with outstanding results, and there is reduced shrinkage with raw meat products. "Combi-ovens provide huge benefits because of their sheer versatility: they can be used in a variety of roles from baking bread to roasting chickens and every type of food in between," says Paul Godfrey, UK food equipment manager at Hobart UK. "They can help caterers cope with the need for multi-tasking."

Chefs choosing a combi-oven today have a wide choice of models with varying levels of sophistication. Most manufacturers will offer a range which incorporates both manual and programmable ovens to suit the needs of any type of operation, from large scale banqueting using a cook chill system to smaller restaurants that can exploit its multi-functionality.

Rational invented the technology in 1976, and the first combi-steamers had manual controls and were complex to operate. "With a manual model the chef has to enter all the cooking parameters - time, temperature and load," says Lee Norton, Rational's managing director. "In a programmable model the chef punches in the cooking requirements setting into motion preset programmes."

Alan Evans, executive training chef at Electrolux Professional, says the benefits of using such a "highly intelligent piece of kit" are extensive. "Early programmable models just had nine programmes each with about three steps, now they have 1,000 programmes each with 100 steps or cooking phases," he adds. "Stored programmes can be transferred between different ovens using the USB port, adding extra convenience to chefs with multiple ovens or kitchens."

But it's important to match the oven to your needs so you don't end up spending money on features you're unlikely to use.

Making the right choice
According to Nick McDonald, marketing director at Lincat, comparing a manual model with a high tech oven is a bit like comparing a top of the range car, with automatic gearbox, cruise control and built-in satnav, with a basic model with none of these features. "Both will get you from A to B, but the high spec model gets you there in a more efficient and less stressful manner. Caterers might be advised to opt for the simpler version if they wanted to use it mainly as a steamer with occasional use as a dry oven, or vice versa."

The decision on whether to go for a programmable or manual combi will, says Kurran Gadhvi, marketing manager at Valera, depend mainly on the skills of the user. "An experienced chef may benefit from having a manually operated combi that allows a very hands on approach, whereas if the user is less skilled then you might want to consider an oven which can be pre-programmed so that it is purely a case of any staff member selecting the necessary programme and pressing the start button. And, if things change, a programmable oven can still be used in manual mode."

Andrew Fordyce, director of catering equipment supplier and design consultants IFSE agrees that deskilling in the kitchen often plays a major part in the choice of a combi-oven. "The main benefit of a programmable combi-oven is that anyone can use it to produce the same cooking results as a trained chef once it has been programmed," he says. "Programmable combis are more expensive, but given that the largest ongoing cost is labour you could argue that the extra cost of a programmable model will soon pay back given that it doesn't necessarily require a trained chef to operate it."

Norton at Rational asserts that programmable combi ovens are suitable for just about every catering operation from Michelin star restaurants through to bakeries, take-away outlets and fish and chip shops.

"Restaurants use them for their precision and reliability of outcome. Take-aways use them for speed and ease of operation and consistency of results. Many experienced chefs prefer to operate a combi-steamer manually both to be in control and because it's what they are used to.

"Modern manual combis are much simpler to operate than their predecessors. Plus, the accuracy of the humidity and temperature is more precise and consistent than was possible back in the 1970s. So a manual combination oven gives the chefs complete control of the whole cooking process."

Keith Howland, development chef at Manitowoc, supplier of the Convotherm range of ovens, says programmable models are particularly useful from a safety point of view too, as HACCP information can be easily collected. Although he adds: "There are times when an all singing, all dancing model is excess to requirements, perhaps where the usage is more about part baking, warming and more simple tasks, where there is a constant temperature throughout and where the user is generally doing one task at a time."

However, Stuart Long, UK sales and marketing director at MKN, has a warning: "Extra combi-oven programmes are welcome when it comes to value for money, but without professional training, it might actually be a waste. What's the pointing investing in the latest technology if the training is inadequate? The results could be disastrous."

Saving time loading recipes
Brothers Jonray and Peter Sanchez-Iglesias are the youngest chefs in Europe to hold a Michelin star. They run Casamia, a small, family-owned restaurant on the outskirts of Bristol and the winner of Channel 4's Ramsay's Best Restaurant last year.

Serving about 40 covers a day, the kitchen uses a Hobart Combi Pro six-grid oven for a significant amount of dishes. Bread and pastry items go through the combi and the brothers use the steam function for sous-vide cooking in place of a water bath. "The Combi Pro is very practical and easy to use with its touch screen and USB recipe function," says Jonray. "This is really handy and saves us loads of time loading up our recipes, giving us confidence in the kitchen when we're not in it. Best of all, and our favourite function which saves us the most time, is its amazing self-clean mode which leaves the machine absolutely spotless."

key combi features

Combi panel

The manual combi
● Chef can alter cooking methods, times and temperature very easily.
● There is usually less to go wrong with manual ovens, so the risk of downtime is lower and any repair costs tend to be less.
● Needs a level of skill and intervention to get the best results.
● Manual versions are subject to human error.
● Most entry-level combi-ovens tend not to have an automatic self-clean system.

The programmable combi
● Consistent results whatever the venue, the occasion and the skill level of the members of staff involved.
● Many have a full interactive touch pad with images of the food which is particularly useful to overcome language barriers.
● Quick and easy for caterers to upload recipes using a USB port.
● Self-cleaning feature with some automatically adjusting detergent levels to match the degree of soiling.
● If something unexpected happens, such as the door being opened mid-programme, then the cooking quality may be compromised.

Recent developments
The biggest manufacturing trend that we are seeing in the combi-oven market is a move to machines that are as simple and functional as they possibly can be. Recent developments we've seen include the ability to precisely cook batches of delicate bakery products and a programme that guarantees a crispy finish to the end product. What's more over the past couple of years manufacturers have been looking closely at the environmental impact of combi-ovens. Water usage, key power connections and heat recovery systems are all continuously scrutinised.
FCSI consultant Duncan Hepburn, director at Hepburn Associates

Pre-programming saves staff training
Parc Y Scarlets stadium in Llanelli has 15 hospitality suites and caters for over 600 guests on a match day. At the heart of the kitchen are five Convotherm combination ovens.

"The ovens are pre-programmed so that any of the staff can use them," says head chef Paul Owen. "We use the ovens for everything from boiling, steaming and roasting through to regen for plated meals. As service approaches, the trolleys are placed into the Convotherm for re-generation and the food on the plate is ready to be sauced and served typically with in 6-8 minutes. The self-cleaning function is also fantastic and takes a fraction of the time it would do previously."

Restaurant food for the masses
'Restaurant food for the masses' was executive chef and director of catering, Eibhear Coyle's chief objective prior to the refurbishment of banqueting facilities at the Lancaster London hotel. To meet this challenge, Coyle spoke extensively to consultants, chefs, hotel management and owners before deciding on MKN Gold combi-ovens, based on the equipment's capability, simplicity of use, quality of build and flexibility of custom-made plate trolleys.

A year on and Coyle and his team are serving in excess of 2,000 covers at the newly refurbished banqueting facilities, with 10 MKN Gold combi-ovens split between two 1,000 cover suites.

Coyle says: "You can also see exactly which cooking step the oven is at and transfer that information between units by USB, ensuring consistency and quality every time. At the end of the day, the units clean themselves automatically with a unique, simple and safe cartridge system, with maximum energy efficiency achieved by a triple glazed door and waste heat recovery."

Electrolux Professional 0800 988 2809 www.electrolux-professional.co.uk
FCSI 01483761122 www.fcsi.org.uk
Hepburn Associates 01452615540 www.hepburnassociates.co.uk
Hobart 0844 888 7777 www.hobartuk.com
IFSE 0208 667 1167 www.ifse.co.uk
Lincat 01522-875500 www.lincat.co.uk
Manitowoc 01483464900 www.manitowocfsuk.com
MKN 01886 832379 www.mkn.eu
Rational 01582 480388 www.rational-uk.com
Valera 01708 869593 www.valera.co.uk

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