Chefs have the hots for the Rational

The combi oven can bake pizza, sear salmon and grill steak at the same time

Photograph by Andrew Tolson

There’s a revolution simmering in the kitchens of the nation’s restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals, hotels and even prisons. Electric stoves, gas ranges and convection ovens are being ripped out to make way for the Rational, a German-made beast that can bake, roast, broil, steam, grill, fry, dehydrate, poach and perfectly reheat food.

It’s called a combi oven, and it uses both dry heat and moist heat to cook large quantities of food precisely the same way. It can also bake a pizza, sear salmon and grill a steak at the same time. The programmable Rational is popular in Europe, where more than 85 per cent of commercial kitchens use combi ovens, but the company is just beginning to make inroads in Canada. Most of the units, which cost from $15,000 to $55,000, are sold to high-volume kitchens, although they do have a few well-heeled clients who have a smaller version at home (the most famous is the White House).

At the Fairmont Pacific Rim in Vancouver this summer, executive chef Darren Brown took a visitor on a tour of his vast cooking empire, passing staff making chocolates, pickling cucumbers and checking on charcuterie before stopping in front of the Rational oven and declaring that it had revolutionized his kitchen, especially on catering jobs. They can compose and chill up to 120 meals on mobile racks, then roll them into a Rational and “reheat them to the perfect temperature in exactly eight minutes.”

Now some of the country’s cutting-edge restaurants, from Charcut Roast House in Calgary to Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal, have installed Rationals. In Toronto, Grant van Gameren is readying his new eatery, CrownCooks, for its February opening. He plunked down $15,000 a piece for two of the newest models. “It’s expensive, especially because I’m used to $250 used electric ovens.”

The new restaurant will have 70 seats, twice as many as the groundbreaking, meat-centric Black Hoof, which he left in 2011. He will still prepare offal and other bits of animals, but will add vegetables and fish to the menu.

The big thing the Rational offers is consistency, but you won’t catch him using its handy egg button to make soufflés. “I’m not into making people into robots. I’m more into being creative and I just want a piece of equipment that can do what I tell it to do.” He’ll use the oven to steam, braise, cook sous vide (the vacuum packed food steamed at low temperature) and even bake bread. “It’s more for the consistency, the temperature and the humidity.”

In Vineland, Ont., chef Ryan Shapiro reopened his funky, field-to-table restaurant About Thyme Bistro this spring after installing a $20,000 unit that he bought after seeing a demonstration. “I asked them: can it crisp up duck confit, make pork belly? And it all worked perfectly.”

He got rid of a gas oven and two convection ovens to make way for the Rational and found that it took care of another problem.

“The heat in my kitchen used to be unbearable,” he says. “But this summer I didn’t break a sweat.” On Friday and Saturday nights, “when we’re rocking and rolling, programming the Rational for service meant I didn’t need that third person on the line anymore.” Shapiro says that 65 to 70 per cent of the menu for his 40-seat restaurant is now cooked in the Rational.

Rational Canada Inc. saw sales of $15 million in 2010, and will surpass the $20-million mark this year, says Louis-Philippe Audette, president of the Canadian division. The untapped market is big, since most commercial kitchens still rely on traditional steamers, ovens, fryers and grills.

The fact that you can program the oven to do the cooking for you doesn’t take the art out of the craft. At Charcut Roast House in Calgary they still use a smoker and a rotisserie to impart flavour to the food. In Toronto, van Gameren doesn’t want his chefs to come in “and just be able to push a button to braise a perfect veal shank. I enjoy processes and execution in my cooking.” The Rational is there to make his chefs’ lives easier, to make the food more consistent and the kitchen more efficient, “but not to take the soul out of cooking.”

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