Combi-ovens can be found in many kitchens as they are very versatile and everyone, including the kitchen porter, can use them. Diane Lane reports
It's easy to see why the combi-oven, or combi-steamer, has become a chef's best friend. Its sheer versatility and outstanding cooking results have made it virtually indispensable to the thousands of kitchens that own one, or more if they're really lucky.
"Combi-steamers are hugely popular because they combine the benefits of two established cooking methods," says Mick Shaddock, chair of the Catering Equipment Suppliers Association (CESA).
"So, you get roasts that are crisp on the outside, as in a conventional oven, and succulent on the inside, as in a steamer. They can prepare all sorts of different foods perfectly, because the oven cabinet's environment can be adjusted to suit whatever is being cooked. Roasting, baking, poaching, grilling… the combi-steamer does it all."
Paul Hickman, development chef at Lincat, which supplies the Opus SelfCooking Center, says the combi has revolutionised the way many kitchens operate. "It can replicate any cooking process with the exception of deep-fat frying, and occupies a minimum of floor space. It can, therefore, open up a whole new range of menu options for even the smallest of kitchens," he says.
"Baking your own bread is a great example. Without a combi, you would need two separate pieces of equipment, a prover and an oven. Whereas a combi can both prove and bake, saving space, time and money. Crème brûlée is another; it's unlikely that you'd tackle crème brûlée for 50 using a traditional oven, it would simply be too time consuming and difficult. A combi, however, which eliminates the need for a bain-marie, makes this dessert a very easy option."
While the role of the combi-oven in the regeneration of large amounts of food in a banqueting situation is well documented, its application is far more wide reaching, as Lee Norton, managing director at Rational UK, whose latest model is the SelfCooking Center Whitefficiency, explains. "The flexibility of the combi-steamer means that it is suited to all types of catering establishments, from local pubs and cafés to Michelin-starred restaurants or banqueting venues, as well as hotels, schools, hospitals, supermarkets and prisons. Benefits vary for each type of application but include savings in energy, food wastage, staffing costs, time and space in the kitchen. For example, many pubs have limited kitchen space - a combi-steamer can help maximise their cooking capacity."
The benefits of a combi-oven are multi-faceted, says Iain Munro, chairman of the Catering Equipment Distributors Association (CEDA). "Combi-ovens offer the same advantages for any operator: high levels of consistency, control and quality. However, combi-ovens are adaptable to suit the differing needs in a diverse industry," he explains.
"Casual-dining operators generally rely on combi-ovens to maximise volume production of food items, and are part of the initial cooking process in a busy environment. Fine-dining establishments use the combi-oven's ability for temperature accuracy, predominately in the creation of difficult and delicate foods.
"Pubs will often use them as a reliable means of producing consistent food, where the chef skill level may be basic. This is similar to hotels, where the combi-oven will be the staple piece of equipment to produce the bulk of their high-quality food. Contract caterers, such as schools or healthcare sites, use combi-ovens for their high level of nutritional retention in foods such as vegetables, as well as their consistency for a high quality and output."
For Stuart Long, UK sales and marketing director at MKN, which has the HansDampf range of combi-ovens, the nutritional benefits are not always recognised. "In an increasingly health-conscious society, caterers have to step up to the plate when it comes to the nutritional credentials of their menus," he says. "However, caterers might not be aware of the role equipment can play in this mission.
"A high-quality combi-oven gives caterers more flexibility in the way they prepare their dishes, and by replacing atmospheric steamers and pressure steamers with combis, you can maximise nutrition retention in vegetables, meat and fish with a high level of precision and control. From vegetables to rice, meat to puddings, all retain their nutritional value and colour when steamed."
Another big advantage of combi-ovens is their cooking performance at low temperatures, says Andy Blakemore, training and menu development chef at Electrolux Professional, whose combi range is called air-o-steam. "For any outlet, from sandwich chains to full-service restaurants, a good combi-oven can open doors for menu development by cooking joints of meat better, more economically and with up to 50% less meat shrinkage, a stat that cannot be ignored with meat prices continuing to rise. Optimum cooking programmes can even allow caterers to use cheaper cuts of meat."
"A crucial piece of equipment," is how Simon Frost, regional sales director at Manitowoc, suppliers of the Convotherm range, describes the combi-oven. He says: "Previously they were the piece of equipment in the corner that only the head chef would touch; nowadays they are in every kitchen and everyone, including the kitchen porter, can use them.
"Modern programmable combi-ovens have become easier to use and have icon-driven pre-programmed menus. Now with the ability for lower-skilled staff to operate the equipment and produce the same consistent quality finish as a higher-skilled team member, combi-ovens are one of the most useful pieces of equipment in the kitchen. Additionally, from a safety point of view, programmable models are particularly useful. HACCP (hazard analysis, critical control points) information can be easily collected for greater safety and monitoring control."
However, it is important to listen to manufacturers' advice to ensure you get the oven that best suits your needs. Paul Godfrey, product manager at Hobart Cooking Solutions, which recently introduced two Bonnet combi-oven ranges, says: "There are different models to suit different needs in terms of sizing and operation. For example, a hotel may need bulk production, therefore requiring a 20-grid combi.
"If it is only used during preparation, we may suggest a basic control model with auto cleaning, but if plated regeneration is required, we would recommend a higher-tier model because more precision will be required.
"Some businesses prefer to have the extra flexibility by having 2×6 levels stacked, which saves space and energy. We don't take the approach of one size fits all."
From breakfast to banquets at the Union Jack Club
The objective of the Union Jack Club near London's Waterloo is to provide serving and former armed forces personnel with good quality hotel accommodation at a reasonable price.
Besides the hotel accommodation, there are restaurants, bars, lounges and 12 banqueting rooms which host functions for 15 to 250 people and play an important role in helping fund the charity.
The club recently refurbished its kitchens and invested in several new Rational SelfCooking Center Whitefficiency combi-ovens, installed by Inox Equip. The main kitchen, where most of the food is produced, has a floor-standing 20-grid Rational and a "combi-duo", featuring a six-grid unit stacked on top of a 10-grid. The satellite kitchen, for functions, has two 20-grid SelfCooking Center Whitefficiency units.
"We use the Rationals for just about everything," says head chef Marcin Koch, "from à la carte service to banqueting, and we use them all the time - including overnight."
Typically, the club will serve 125 breakfasts, 30 to 40 lunches and more than 100 dinners each day. Then there are the functions - there could be several on at once - and the club's 100 staff need to eat, too. It's a big variety of foods and types of cooking, which means the flexibility comes in very useful.
He adds: "Rack of lamb, fillet steaks, fish, steamed vegetables, bakery goods - SelfCooking Control means they all come out perfectly. They are easy to use and they deliver consistent results."
One of the new features Koch makes use of is Efficient Level Control (ELC), which tells the user which different foods can be cooked together and intelligently controls the cooking time for each rack. "We use ELC a lot - for example, we can do full English breakfasts all at once," he says. "And for banqueting, we use the Finishing system, which regenerates foods really well - including tricky items like fish."
Another important feature for the club is overnight cooking. "Slow-cooking overnight means we can take advantage of cheaper cuts of meat and still get the best results. That helps us keep prices lower for our armed forces customers. It also cuts costs - not only are we taking advantage of low-rate electricity, we don't need to run the ventilation system either, since the units are electric and cooking is unsupervised."
Before buying the new SelfCooking Center Whitefficiency models, Koch and some of his team attended a Rational Cooking Live event where they saw the machine in operation. "It was very useful," he says. "Sometimes you don't believe the combi can do what they say it can, until you see it for yourself."
An ambitious function menu at St Peter's in Sandwich
Six months in and Nick Leonard, chef-owner of the 55-seat St Peter's restaurant in Sandwich, Kent, had a challenge on his hands in delivering an ambitious menu for his first private function, a full house of London doctors.
"The restaurant was doing really well, we had a great kitchen and a superb team," he says. "The problem was that we were working way beyond capacity to deliver the kind of menu that I wanted. This private function for 55 with four courses as well as canapés really brought the problem into focus."
The main course - poached and roasted organic chicken, wild mushrooms with a light chicken and tarragon broth - was a combination of chicken leg, to be steamed then finished to order, a confit drumstick and a chicken meatball, and all 55 portions had to be served at the same time.
The solution came in the form of a Lincat Opus SelfCooking Center whitefficiency OSCWE61, which Leonard took delivery of just the day before the event. He explains: "This thing knows what it's cooking, what method is required and for how long. It even holds it for you, so when it is served the food is perfect. And it can easily manage the 55 plates we needed. It's like the BMW of catering equipment, but it's so simple to use it's also like an Apple iPad. What could have been a logistical culinary nightmare that evening ran like clockwork back in the kitchen."
Since then, the combi-oven has enabled Leonard to deliver a broader range of dishes. "You can put a roast on overnight, produce and hold a fish course of home-smoked sea trout for over 50 guests, let it handle all your seasonal vegetables and garnishes and then ask it to do a deep clean," he says.
"On the other hand, with its humidity function it is also gentle enough to handle the most delicate desserts and pâtisserie."
Electrolux Professional 0844 375 3444 www.electrolux-professional.co.uk
Hobart 0844 888 7777 www.hobartuk.com
Lincat 01522 875500 www.lincat.co.uk
Manitowoc 01483 464900 www.manitowocfsuk.com
MKN 01886 832379 www.mkn.eu
Rational 0800 389 2944 www.rational-UK.com