While much prime cooking equipment appears to be simple technology, it is not. The science that goes into designing a gas burner or a deep-fat fryer is hugely complex but, despite the underlying science, both items are simple to operate.
Combi-ovens are not just complex design technology; they look complicated, and, in the eyes of some chefs, are complicated to use. There was a time when an oven had two controls: a temperature dial and a door handle. Combi-ovens often have a whole panel of controls - plus the door handle.
The question increasingly being asked by chefs is: are manufacturers over-engineering the combi-oven to the point that a chef worries more about the microcircuitry and the LED displays than the food in the oven?
Just how unsure some chefs are is highlighted by the view of Ronnie Rusack, owner of the busy, food-led Bridge Inn near Edinburgh. Rusack says that when they last refurbished, combi-ovens were considered, but the decision was taken to stay with conventional ovens because of a belief that combi-ovens were just too complicated.
Says Rusack: "When too much technology comes into the kitchen, problems soon follow. We had a problem just a couple of weeks ago with a computer-controlled blast freezer that stopped working. We had to shut it all down and reprogram it. Cooking to me is about good ingredients and simple techniques. If we were to refurbish tomorrow, I'd look again at combi-ovens, but I'd take some convincing that one would be as reliable as a simple oven. We need to worry about the food on the plate, not the computers in the oven."
That echoes the feeling from Steve Schaffer, catering development manager for Punch Taverns, whose job is to advise Punch tenants both on food and the equipment to cook it with. He believes combi-ovens are a useful item of equipment for a food-led pub, but holds the view that unless it is a busy operation with chefs who are trained in programmable ovens, it is best to go down the basic route and opt for one that is simple to understand and simple to use.
You would expect a united front from combi-oven manufacturers that programmable is good, manual is bad, but opinion among manufacturers is divided.
Peter Eglin, commercial director of the Parry Group, says complex programming has its advantages when used in kitchens catering for hundreds of people at one sitting, such as in banqueting or hospitals, but when it comes to smaller operations, such as restaurants and small hotels, then this is where simple, manually controlled ovens come into their own.
Eglin adds that one of the biggest downsides of programmable ovens is their cost. This in itself can put them beyond the reach of the smaller caterer who would love the cooking benefits of a convection oven with steam but can't afford an expensive computer-driven combi-oven. "And chefs sometimes forget about servicing costs," he says. "The more complicated the oven, the more to go wrong and, often, the more expensive the spare parts.
"If the menu is fairly straightforward and the kitchen wants the benefits of a combi-oven, then a low-tech combi-oven is ideal as it's simple to operate, has a lower purchase cost and is cheaper to service."
That is a point echoed by Terry Ashmore, product development manager for Hobart. "More advanced technology often involves expensive software and, with more features, the cost rises to cover parts. The more technology involved, the higher the risk, plus it can be expensive to repair, as most of the operation is controlled through a printed circuit board, which has a high service cost."
According to John Harvey of Valera, part of the mistrust some chefs have with programmable combi-ovens harks back to their early days. His main point is this: "The only real advantage with a manually controlled oven is fewer electronic parts and, therefore, fewer things to go wrong. But with the progress of computer boards this is not as big an issue as it was in the past. It's just that some chefs still remember the days when computer boards were very unreliable and instinctively suspect the more complex programmable machines. The five-year parts warranty we give on the Leventi combi-ovens Valera sells is proof of how reliable control boards are today."
Harvey adds that in terms of actual cooking, a computerised oven has exactly the same facilities as a manually operated one - but with the added bonus of being programmable.
In modern kitchens this can be priceless, says Harvey, as it allows chefs to store cooking programmes that guarantee the finished product is cooked to their specification every time. Not only does this take away some of the pressure in a busy kitchen with limited staff, but it also allows groups of hotels, restaurants and pub chains to control standards across the estate by devising the cooking programmes centrally.
As the manufacturer of some of the most technologically advanced combi-ovens in the world, Rational is, predictably, firmly on the side of programmable combi-ovens. Martin Ubl, the company's international marketing manager, says that manual combi-ovens can work out more expensive and difficult to use. Says Ubl: "Who wants to work out how long, how much steam and how much heat you need for every dish? Chefs want ovens that you turn on, push a button and it does the rest. Manual operation might have fewer controls, but there is more to work out, so more can go wrong."
Clever technology in combi-ovens should be complicated on the inside, but easy on the outside, says Ubl. "That was our thinking in developing the Rational SelfCooking Center combi-ovens, launched in May. The chef tells the oven what is being cooked and how it is wanted to be cooked and the oven works out the rest. You don't even have to tell it how much the food weighs. This type of intelligent technology is the future of combi-ovens. It allows chefs to get on with the essentials like menu planning, presentation and creativity."
Ubl also rejects the cost argument against high technology in combi-ovens. He says the cost of technology is coming down, so more technology doesn't automatically mean more cost.
The front-end simplification of controls that are technologically complex has other advantages, according to Nick McDonald, marketing and export director of Lincat, which sells the SelfCooking Center combi-oven under the Lincat name. McDonald points to the fact that kitchen teams are increasingly international and for many chefs English is neither the first language nor one they fully understand.
This is where technology makes a sophisticated oven simpler to use, says McDonald, since the SelfCooking Center can, at the touch of a selector button, change the language on the display, not just to languages that use the Roman alphabet as most Western European countries do, but the Cyrillic alphabet used in Eastern Europe, and even Chinese and Japanese.
As for chefs being intimidated by programming, McDonald says any reputable manufacturer or distributor should be able to offer on-site training with, possibly, a back-up helpline.
A final thought on computer wizardry in combi-ovens comes from Alan Tranter, sales director for Equip Line, which distributes the US-owned Alto-Shaam combi-ovens in Britain: "Technology in combi-ovens is there to help chefs, not scare them."
Angelo Po 01332 638030 CESA, the Catering Equipment Suppliers Association 020 7233 7724
Electrolux and Zanussi 0121-220 2800 Equip Line 01895 272236
Falcon 01786 455200 Hobart 07002 101101
Lincat 01522 875555
Parry Group 01332 872321
RH Hall 01442 875578 Rational 01582 480388
Valera 01708 869593