I started using a combi-oven in 1990 and it changed the way I looked at cooking in a commercial environment.
By John Placko
Combi-ovens, sometimes referred to as hot-air steamers or steam convection ovens, are becoming a staple in most commercial kitchen environments. These are completely sealed cooking units which enable very accurate control of heat and humidity. You can bake, steam, braise, roast, poach and grill in these units.
RATIONAL introduced their unit to the market 41 years ago and today there are numerous brands, including Alto-Shaam and Lainox Naboo (yes, the owner is a Star Wars fan), which are all excellent products that come with chef support for menu development, demonstrations and after-sales support. RATIONAL actually have over 300 highly trained chefs worldwide they draw upon for customer support.
Combi-ovens are used in school cafeterias, banquet centres, hotels, cafés, and I’ve seen multiple units in small fine dining restaurants. Alto-Shaam’s smallest unit is just 21” wide, 25” deep, 33” high.
Unlike a convection oven which primarily cooks the food with dry convection heat which typically dries out the food product, the combi-oven can produce dry convection heat, steam or a combination of both in varying degrees, at multiple stages during the cooking process. Injection systems create steam in the cooking unit and can withdraw the steam very quickly to allow a crisp finish to food.
Most combi-oven manufacturers have standard cooking cycles already set up for you so you can customize your oven to your needs. These units can replace many items in your kitchen, including a steamer, sous vide machine, smoker, broiler, rice cooker, dehydrator, cook/hold oven and convection oven.
Chef Corey Kantola, executive chef/regional sales manager, RATIONAL Canada, had been using a combi-oven for 12 years before joining RATIONAL two years ago.
You’ll find RATIONAL ovens in many of the best restaurants in the country – Buca, Bar Buca, Bar Isabel, Momofuku, just to name a few.
Says Richard Albert, executive chef, Lévis Convention Centre, who uses a Lainox Naboo, “it replaces grills, braising pans, steamers and ovens. All the meals I cook in it are just perfect.”
So how smart are these ovens? Today’s touch pads are fully programmable with USB, hardwire programming or in the case of Lainox Naboo, cloud-based. Centrally developed recipes and procedures can be sent out to multiple units for consistency across a chain restaurant, for example.
Chris Moreland, Ontario regional sales manager/executive chef for Chesher Equipment Ltd., says, “The user interface with touchpad technology and Wi-Fi internet connectivity has caught up to our other technology like iPads and smartphones. Short two to three-minute training videos can be viewed right on touchpad screens for new employees.”
The Lainox combi-oven features cloud-based technology with built in Wi-Fi on each combi-oven, and you can even make changes to a cooking program from the comfort of your beach chair using an iPad if you want. Multi-level control with JIT (Just In Time) allows the user to put multiple items in the Lainox Naboo and have them all finish together at the same time. Plus the self-cleaning feature on these units enables kitchen staff to do other kitchen cleaning duties.
Labour savings and consistency is where I think these units have the most impact. Fish and chicken can be cooked to be moist, beef is cooked to the correct doneness, and vegetables steam to perfection.
True, these units are not cheap, but the ROI is important when considering factors like yield loss and inconsistent cooking, which leads to waste, and labour shortages. Tom Field, corporate chef at Alto-Shaam Canada, sees the future evolution of these ovens to include some degree of voice control, plus more energy- and resource-efficiency.
I remember roasting chickens in an old convection oven in the ‘80s where whole chickens were “as dry as a dog’s bone,” as they say in Australia. Thanks to advances in technology, those days are all but gone.
John Placko is culinary director at Modern Culinary Academy, www.modernca.ca