Kitchen Equipment: Where Fun Meets Function
By Robert J. Nebel
When a shiny new industrial-strength stove, grill or cooler is wheeled into a kitchen, a feeling of exhilaration fills the air. But successful restaurateurs know that decisions about what and when to order new equipment are driven by business need, not to satisfy a desire for the latest playthings. The good news is that some of the most functional equipment can also be a heck of a lot of fun to work with.
Such is the case for Chef Dennis Davis at Virginia Highland’s Sala Sabor de Mexico restaurant when it comes to his new Tuff Grill. “We were looking for something more rustic that produces higher heat,” Davis says of the wood-fire grill. And yet, “it is incredibly simplistic and flexible. You load it up and you can control the temperature on each side of the unit.”
The Tuff Grill was a logical choice for Davis and his crew because not only does it flavor their Mexican cuisine with the wood-smoked flavor they sought, it fit into Sala’s rustic decor. “With the Tuff Grill, you can taste the smoke in the chicken breasts and especially in all of our fish dishes,” he says, adding that there is a positive noticeable difference in the way people are responding to the food since he has been using the Tuff Grill.
While the Tuff Grill imparts smoky flavor into the cuisine, Davis also enjoys its low maintenance. “It’s always the biggest issue with a grill, but with this unit, it’s really not that bad,” he says. “The beauty of the grill is that it has no moveable parts. It’s archaic in that sense, but that makes it easier to clean than a gas grill because there are fewer nooks and crannies for ash buildup.”
Before he purchased his “wood-fired wonder,” Davis worked with a standard gas Imperial Grill. While he was happy with it and got the mileage he wanted out of that piece of equipment, Davis says that the grill wore out quickly due to the demands of his kitchen. After four years, Davis and the staff decided it was time for an equipment change. “Gas grills can pop, warp or simply break down,” he says. “After realizing that we had it in our budget, we went with the Tuff Grill. We hope to avoid the wear and tear on this wood-burning grill. I think it is the way to go.”
Davis is also fond of Sala’s Imperial Salamander. The broiler gives tomatoes and veggies a smoky taste, and at three and a half feet wide by two and half feet tall, it’s a space saver. The unit is above Davis’ stove, which gives him plenty of room to work on his stovetop.
The Tuff Grill and Imperial Salamander are user-friendly according to Davis. “The Tuff Grill is easy. It might take a little effort to get going, but once it’s on, you get great results,” he says. “The Salamander is great. You just turn it on and go.”
“Simplicity” is the credo that Executive Chef Kevin Rathbun follows when purchasing kitchen equipment for his three restaurants: Inman Park’s Rathbun’s, Krog Bar and Kevin Rathbun Steak. “I’m frugal when it comes to equipment,” Rathbun says. “I don’t need a signature kitchen that’s on display. I just need firepower.”
As the owner of three successful restaurants, one might think that Rathbun is sitting pretty with only the finest equipment. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rathbun operates on a shoestring budget and is a fan of used equipment. For example, Rathbun paid about $400 for a range when he started out and still depends on that range to this day, affectionately referring to it as his “go to piece.”
When it comes to broilers, Rathbun prefers the Southbend over the Imperial Salamander. “Most steakhouses use them,” Rathbun says. “I can see why. The Southbend balloons the meat, seals the juices and cooks quite fast.”
For years, Chef Kevin has raved about his Big Green Egg at home, so he purchased large versions of “the world’s best smoker” for his kitchens. “The Egg provides so much creativity,” he says. “It’s great for pork shoulders and of course tomatoes and onions. It retains so much moisture.”
When it came to ventilation, Rathbun didn’t skimp when he purchased a Captiveaire system. “It’s a little more money, but it’s worth it for safety reasons,” he says. A clean kitchen is a safe kitchen and, “sooner or later, you have to get back there.” That is why his equipment is on wheels and has quick release options.
Since Rathbun wears several caps in addition to his chef’s hat, he and his partners are on the frontline of kitchen equipment purchases. “A lot of the time we go directly to the company and do the talking and research,” he says. Among the equipment in Rathbun’s kitchens are Blodgett Convection ovens and Hobart stationary and handheld mixers.
At the Intercontinental Buckhead, Director of Food and Beverage Bixente Pery manages Au Pied de Cochon restaurant, the hotel bar, room service and banquet facilities. To juggle multiple demands without compromising his goals for high quality, he chose Rational ovens, which have been a big hit with Pery and the culinary staff. “You can steam, you can use it as a regular oven and even regenerate food which means it goes from the oven to the plate, no covers or trays are involved,” he says. “When you can regenerate food, you can really serve restaurant-style with our banquets.”
Bixente Pery has been dealing with Rational ovens for the past five years and vows that he will not go back to what he calls the “old way.” The “old way” for Pery was firing up the oven, putting on plates and using covers. “Sauces would burn or food would come out dry,” Pery recalls. “Quality was not top.” Pery says Rational ovens avoid those pitfalls and in the end, save time and labor.
Upgrading or purchasing new kitchen equipment can be a daunting task. Just ask Chef Olivier DeBusschere of downtown Atlanta’s Nikolai’s Roof. Since his kitchen sits atop the Hilton, he is limited in his equipment choice. “We cannot have a wood-fired grill because of where we are at,” DeBusschere says. “We have the Lange line of equipment from the stove to the vent system. The newest part of it is my stovetop.” While he appreciates having a new stovetop, DeBusschere’s is more excited about his new Pacojet ice cream maker, which he uses to make sorbets and soft parfaits.
With so many equipment options and new technology available, some chefs still prefer keeping things simple. Rathbun admits he may one day upgrade his equipment line; he says that he would like to have a complete Jade product line because “those pieces look dynamite for French-style kitchens.” And he points out that warranties can be an advantage to purchasing new equipment by offering “peace of mind.” But he doesn’t feel that warranties should be the deciding factor and is also concerned that newer equipment might use more gas and be more apt to break down: “I look at some of these nice new pieces, but then I think, “How am I going to clean it? How am I going to get the flour out of that thing?’ I believe in fewer bones. More bones mean more can break down.” Sala’s Davis agrees. “The more technology, the more that can go wrong,” he says. “All I want out of my equipment is for it to work.”