It's often said people "taste" a meal with their eyes first, and the current trend towards more theatre in the dining experience is testimony to this. So what better way of adding a visual feast than with a rôtisserie?
Previously, they've tended to be more popular on the Continent, particularly in France, though they are catching on here. And there are benefits to rotary cooking, as the UK's rtisserie pioneers have learnt. "People want theatre and showmanship, and the most stunning thing about rôtisserie cooking is the theatre," says Graham Russell, brand manager at Bakers Pride, which is agent in the UK for French manufacturer Rotisol. "When you see one all lit up and loaded with food it's a great draw."
But it's not just what the customer sees - those who use them recommend rtisseries for the taste. Tim Tolley is head chef at Conran restaurant Plateau at Canary Wharf, London, where he's been using a rtisserie for about two years. "It's a simple, even way to cook and it looks good in an open kitchen," he says. "You get very even heat over the entire food item, and rotation keeps things moist because the juices go back into the food. Cooking meat in a rôtisserie gives a very succulent and juicy result."
When you cook meat on a rôtisserie it turns in front of a number of gas burners. That means it cooks for a short time, followed by a period of relaxation away from the heat. This is similar to when we allow a roast joint to rest after cooking, but with a rtisserie this happens much more often. The heat of cooking relaxes the meat's proteins and expels its juices, then as it turns and relaxes it allows moisture expelled to return to the denatured proteins.
For this reason rtisserie-cooked meat is self-basting, and chefs who use them regard the end product as more succulent and juicy than meat cooked by other methods, which usually involve unrelenting heat.
John Wood is culinary director of the Grove, a 230-bed resort hotel in Hertfordshire with several restaurants on site. When it opened its 150-seat Glasshouse restaurant in 2003, the intention was to showcase the theatre of cooking, and a rtisserie was a natural choice.
"It's a fantastically visual way of cooking," says Wood. "The customer can see the food is freshly cooked, and it goes straight from the rôtisserie to the table, where it's carved in front of them. You get good control, there's no need to take things in and out of the oven to baste them, and they glaze as you cook, giving a lovely finish."
Meat is a natural candidate for the rtisserie treatment, and marinated meat in particular is popular, because of the way the juices run back into the food. At the Grove, menu items have included chicken with honey, thyme and lemon, guinea fowl with juniper and sloe gin, pigeon with redcurrant jelly and balsamic vinegar, suckling pig with thyme and garlic, honey and star anise plus saddle of venison with port, Madeira, oregano and marjoram.
But your rtisserie repertoire needn't stop at meat. While most people's idea of the rtisserie involves banks of chickens, manufacturers sell a wide range of holders that can accommodate quite surprising foods.
"You can do everything from pigs' trotters to whole lamb plus things people don't expect, like whole pineapples, fruit kebabs and eggs marinated in truffle juice and cooked on the spit in special holders," says Russell of Bakers Pride, which supplies 20 different kinds of spits and holders for items ranging from fish, lobster and sausages through different sizes of poultry to apples and eggs.
The spit - a metal rod which is threaded through the food - comes in horizontal or vertical form. We're most used to seeing the horizontal spit with a row of chickens on it, but for individually cooked items, the shorter vertical spit allows you to cook one thing at a time. You can put it on the single spit without having to load the entire rack with four or five birds, for example, and take it off without having to disturb other items.
For the chef there's one big potential drawback with rôtisserie - waste. The rtisserie comes with a certain number of spits, and to make the most of its visual impact you need to have it loaded sufficiently to produce a visual and olfactory event. The downside is that if you have to fill it up you could be left with some unsold items.
"It's a batch-cooking method," says Russell. "So you need to know your menu well, and have dishes that can use cold meat, for example, if that's what you're likely to have left."
"As a restaurant you don't want to cook food and hold it," says Tolley. "If you put 10 chickens on the spit and you only sell two, you're left with potential waste." He recommends blanching chickens before putting them on the spit, which cuts rtisserie time to about 10 minutes.
John Judge, executive chef of Chicago Rock Café, which uses a Rotisol unit at its restaurant in Fareham, Hampshire, says: "We have three or four specials such as pasta dishes, curries and salads that use meat from chickens which have not been ordered straight off the rtisserie."
Tony Perkins, project sales manager at kitchen designer Carford, which installed the Labesse rtisseries - available through Bonnet - at Conran's Plateau restaurant and Paternoster Chop House, suggests using unsold meat for stock and staff meals. Other factors to consider are location and ventilation, says Perkins. "The burners generate an immense amount of heat, so very good ventilation is needed. They're also quite big units, so they might not be suitable for smaller restaurants. For full effect, the rtisserie needs to be at the front of house and not tucked away in the kitchen."
And the cost? According to Russell you can pay anything from about 4,000 for a front-of-house, five-spit standard-finish rtisserie to 15,000 for one in a personalised colour scheme with vertical as well as horizontal spits.