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June 2008

Rethinking Fast-Cook Ovens
By: Beth Lorenzini

You know they're speedy. You know they're profitable. Now think about the wide range of products you can turn out with today's fast-cook ovens. At a movie theater chain, pizzas are flying out of a new fast-cook oven, going directly from freezer to oven to customer in a little more than two and a half minutes. That pizza sells for $7.95. At a food cost of $2, the profit potential from speed cooking is healthy indeed.

That was the message delivered by Jeff Hessel, B.S.E. Marketing, in the session "Accelerate Your Profits and Customer Satisfaction with Speed Cooking" during The NAFEM Show last fall. Hessel shared the podium with Mary Lynch, Alpha Distributors, and Joe Pelicane, B.S.E.'s demo training chef.

When Pelicane first saw a fast-cook oven in his test kitchen, he wanted it out, said Hessel. "It didn't take long before he was won over—these ovens turn out foods that, in most cases, are identical to traditional cooking methods, but in a fraction of the time and in a fraction of the space." But it's the time factor that makes the ovens so versatile. "Some units add convection heat, some add forced hot air, some provide radiant heat from the bottom, and some have all three working together with microwaves for super speed and great finishing," Hessel explained.

If you get a unit with a catalytic converter, these ovens will not require a hood in most municipalities. You also don't need a water or gas hookup. "With a 220V. outlet, you're in business," said Hessel. And while they can go just about anywhere, fast-cook ovens differ from simple microwaves in that users categorize them as kitchen equipment, whereas microwaves often find their way out to wait stations in the dining room, according to data cited by Hessel. "Operators are recognizing that these units are ovens. But they can go front or back of house."

Pelicane offered an example of a midscale steak house that replaced three broiler chefs (at $18 an hour) and three broilers with six fast-cook ovens. "The chef put worktables in where the broilers had been and his kitchen is much cooler, too," he said. Another movie theater chain in California is testing baby rack of lamb, four chops for $16.50. Lobster and other delicate seafood, chicken wings, nuggets, pizzas, breakfast, lunch and dinner sandwiches, wraps, steaks and appetizers—in short, a wide range of foods—can be prepared in minutes, even seconds.

Energy And Food Safety Benefits
Aside from profitability and speed, the new crop of fast-cook ovens brings other benefits. "The energy costs on these units are well below those of traditional convection ovens and combi ovens," said Hessel. The footprint is going to become very important, too. "To maximize the versatility of these units, operators will need to be able to put them on a standard back counter."

These ovens can enhance food safety, as well. With these kinds of cooking times, you can hold your foods cold, even frozen, rather than cooking them and holding them hot, according to Hessel. "Let me tell you, the health department loves that." And as for quality, a la minute beats out hot holding every time.

A Few Words Of Advice
Of course, any technology comes with some caveats. "It's imperative that you custom program the cooking cycles to your specific menu items and that your operations stick to food specifications," Hessel said. "These ovens can cook a quarter chicken in two minutes and 25 seconds, and what can cook fast can burn fast. Seconds really count." You also want any staff, trained or new, to be able to produce your menu items consistently with the push of a button, the way the oven has been programmed to perform. So the food going in needs to be consistent.

Servicing is a consideration as well. "There's no track record yet on these ovens because they're too new," Hessel said. "So when you're choosing a model, make sure you ask about the service support and check the warranties."

Other attributes to consider are the heat options in addition to microwave cooking. Flexible cooking operation could be important to you, and some ovens allow you to operate in microwave mode or convection mode only, for example. The draw of these units is that they' re plug-and-play—plug it in, pop in a menu item and push the button to start its preprogrammed cooking cycle. Find out if there are any cooking container restrictions or limitations. These days most microwave-assisted units can handle metal.

"We're all on a learning curve with fast-cook ovens," said Hessel. "They're going to be a key to some really innovative, high-quality foodservice because they go just about anywhere you want to take them and turn out hot, delicious food outrageously fast."

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