Foodservice Equipment Reports

Suite Success

Busy nights at New Orleans’ popular Bourbon House used to be a double-edged sword for owner Dickie Brennan and his crew.

On the one hand, higher revenues. But on the other hand, kitchen chaos, as limited staging space and iffy communication between front- and back-line cooks would often land the kitchen team in the proverbial weeds.

“The back cookline had plenty of firepower but only enough room for staging about four plates at a time,” says Brennan, who, attired in suit and tie, most nights can be found in the dining room alternately visiting with guests and keeping an eye on outgoing trays. Orders would get bottlenecked by only one or two missing plates, he says. Shouting and stress would ensue. Plated food would begin to lose temperature.

Bourbon House’s solution came in the form of a kitchen suite, a one-piece European-style cooking battery customized to offer efficient design, production and mega-amounts of staging space.

The 300-seat Bourbon House, located in the same building as the Astor-Crowne Plaza Hotel, generated revenues of close to $10 million in 2009. The suite was installed in late August.

“It’s a big leap forward for us,” Brennan says when he spoke to FER in September about his restaurant’s first significant kitchen upgrade in seven years. “The suite is helping us put out better product, more efficiently. And our cooks enjoy better communication with each other thanks to the open design and its better sightlines.

“I want every plate to hit the tables at the right temperature,” Brennan adds. “When you have three dishes and you’re waiting for the fourth, you’re losing degrees. Now we’re able to send food out in one swoop.”

The key people involved in the kitchen makeover included Brennan, Bourbon House co-owner Steve Pettus and Executive Chef Darin Nesbit, and Henri Louapre, Loubat Foodservice Equipment, New Orleans.

Why Suite?

Brennan has admired kitchen suite design for more than 25 years. In the 1980s, he spent several years learning and working the culinary trade in France where suites are the norm. Upon his return, he would have liked to install one into a Brennan restaurant. “But the technology wasn’t available in the United States,” he notes, “Plus it would have been far too complicated and expensive to import one from Europe.”

Finally the stars aligned. In late ’09, Bourbon House cooking equipment was approaching its eighth year of hard labor and was overdue for an upgrade. During a November trip to New York, Brennan happened to meet up with Bill Dolan, a longtime manufacturer friend who was overseeing a range installation for Viking at Charlie Palmer’s Aureole New York. After returning to New Orleans, Brennan began working with Dolan to design a kitchen suite for Bourbon House.

The actual kitchen design work started last spring, with a targeted install date of August. The planning, which affected only part of the kitchen operations, went quickly. The manufacturer worked up CAD drawings.

Configuring the suite was a matter of creating space while eliminating gaps. The old kitchen had no place to put plates for receiving fish from the broiler. “The chef would have to pre-plate the vegetable and starch, then place the half-finished plates on a table behind him,” says Dolan.

"Dickie asked for a large landing zone in the middle of the suite, so we gave him a 36” wide by 30”-deep overshelf plus plenty of work-top area,” Dolan adds. “They also needed a cold area near the sauté station—so we gave them two drainable ice bins built into the countertop for the mis-en-place.

The kitchen suite’s open design improves sightlines and communication as well. Now the expeditor and executive chef can communicate with all the cooks at once.

Smooth Install

The installation took place over six days in late August, typically a slow period for Bourbon House. The restaurant stayed open for business by operating from a pared-down menu and making use of cooking equipment from its second-floor banquet kitchen. Also contributing to install speed was a single-point utility connection panel for gas, electricity and water that would be located within the suite.

Ten well-used pieces of equipment were slated for removal: a charbroiler, refrigerated stand, work-top refrigerator, griddle with oven, three 4-burner ranges with convection ovens, a double steamer, counter food warmer and a raised-rail refrigerator. The old charbroiler was fitted with a butane fuel source and wheels for use at off-premise events.

Because keeping clean even the kitchen’s hardest-to-reach areas has always been a priority for Brennan, he chose to have the unit installed not on legs, as is often the case, but instead on a concrete curb built to match the footprint of the unit. The base of the suite would mount flush against the curb.

“With a seamless top and gap-free bottom, no food can get underneath,” Brennan says. “The worst part, for our cleaning staff, would be getting on their hands and knees with a hose to clean under the hot ranges at the end of the evening.”

Despite extra costs, Brennan was banking on the fact that the curb-style installation would significantly reduce floor-cleaning time (not to mention pleasing local health inspectors).

Over a three-day period, a concrete slab was poured, the curb built and tiled and allowed to cure. Then the team from the manufacturer arrived with suite components. Team members assembled the unit, mounted flues and overshelves, hooked up utility connections, then started it up and checked its performance.

Finally the suite was turned over to the staff. Training was minimal. “Our guys are seasoned cooks,” Brennan says. “The manufacturer mainly pointed out handy features, reviewed operations and maintenance procedures with our engineering staff and showed cooks how to break things down for cleaning.”

Meet The Suite

The entire unit was designed with the goal of matching or exceeding the firepower of the individual pieces of equipment it was replacing, while maximizing counterspace for staging plates in progress.

At Bourbon House, typical entrée order production starts at the suite’s back cookline and then is passed to the front. The back cookline, which spans 180” with space for up to four cooks, was built of five cooking and prep modules. The first module features two large gas burners on the far left, used for sauces and soups, plus 18” of work counter and an oven below. The next module offers 36” of workspace and a plate-warming oven below. Modules three and four have workspace on the front half and three raised burners, each, on the back half, plus a finishing oven underneath. And module five holds mis-en-place—a drainable ice-well for shrimp, oysters and other cold sauté ingredients. Below the ice well is an open rack for full-sized sheet pans. A rail running along the length of the back cookline holds various condiments.

The front line of the suite spans 210”, with space for four cooks plus the expeditor in the middle. Its five modules, starting at the right, include a two-burner range top above an 18-in. cabinet, followed by a charbroiler module topping four refrigerated undercounter drawers. The expeditor organizes plate production from the central worktop module, which is mounted above a finishing oven. The final two modules to the left include an 18” griddle and six open-burner range, above two ovens. Like the back line, the suite ends with the mis-en-place unit topping a sheet-pan storage area. A condiment rail running the length gives convenient access to key ingredients. 

Four flues rise vertically, connected by a 20”-high tubular shelf, and in the center is the 36”-square solid platform, used for pre-plate and finished plates.

That New Car Feeling

Brennan, who, like his staff is as happy as a kid with a new car, points out some of the suite’s cool features:

Ø  On the back cookline, the 3” raised-burner sauté station has improved worker safety. Waiting plate edges now line up against a low wall instead of open flame. “There’s no more hot spots that could burn servers’ hands,” Brennan notes.

Ø  Everywhere, staging space. The old cookline had only enough space for about four, maybe five, plates—so cooks had cook in small batches regardless of order size, losing time and temperature in the process. “The suite has room for up to 20 plates in a row,” Brennan says. “Now the sauté line is rocking. This change eliminates a major flaw in the prior layout and increases production four-fold.”

Ø  Sturdy construction, especially in details such as hinges on drawers and doors. “This thing is a tank,” says Brennan, pointing out the grates, counter-balanced oven doors and hinges and solid-plate shelves.

Ø  Sectional charbroiler, with three choices of grilling heights, individual burner controls and cast-iron grates and back- and side-splashes that can be run through the warewasher. “We like the flexibility of having a cooler zone for fish, and a hotter one for meat and poultry,” Brennan says.

Looking Ahead

We asked Brennan if he would be installing similar kitchen suites at his other restaurants, Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse and Palace Café, located about two blocks away.

“It’s that or we’ll have a revolution on our hands,” he says, smiling. But he’s not in a hurry. The Steakhouse’s kitchen was flooded by Katrina and therefore is only five years old. And the Palace also had major post-Katrina renovations—but since it serves lunch and dinner, vs. the Steakhouse’s mainly dinner service, the Palace will likely be the next suite recipient.

We asked Louba Chairman Henri Louapre if he sees kitchen suites as the way of the future. “I think suites are a trend for those who understand how valuable they are,” says Louapre, whose company is currently planning to install kitchen suites at the New Orleans Culinary Institute in ’11.

“All suites are custom-built, no matter who the manufacturer is, and represent a significant capital expense,” Louapre adds. “I see suites as an investment—like another employee, only one who can be there 24/7.”

FACTS

MENU/SEGMENT: Full-Service Seafood

SIZE: 15,000 sq. ft.

MEALS/DAY:  about 1,000 covers, for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

SEATS: 300 a la carte, plus 150 in the second-floor banquet facility

KITCHEN PACKAGE: Approx. $100,000

2009 REVENUE: near $10 million

FOR MORE INFO: bourbonhouse.com

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