Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Restaurant revolution?

Citizen Staff Writer



It’s just after 8:30 a.m. in the banquet kitchen at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, and true to the name he gave his popular East Side eatery, chef Alan Zeman is on fire.

The chef/owner of the former Fuego!, Zeman is one part culinary master, one part televangelist and one part that uncle everyone seems to have who is always asking you to pull his finger.

He’s a charismatic blur of sight and sound as he pushes colorful buttons on a futuristic-looking contraption known as the Rational SelfCooking Centre and pulls out exquisitely prepared beef tenderloin, trout, chicken, breaded eggplant and other fare.

“You have to have demonstrations so chefs can see this technology first-hand, because if I just tell chefs that were trained in the classical way what it can do, they say, ‘there’s no way it can do all that,’ ” says Zeman, a regional manager for Rational USA.

It’s a revolutionary way to cook that Europe has already embraced – 85 percent of commercial kitchens across the pond use the technology. The German-based company has unleashed a cadre of chefs like Zeman to show American chefs the considerable money and time the units can save, not to mention the considerable upgrade in the consistency and quality of the fare they serve. Less than 7 percent of American commercial kitchens use the technology, he says.

“The next generation of chefs are already familiar what they can do, because they’ve got them in all the culinary schools now, but it’s the older chefs that have to be convinced,” said Ben Sikora, a contract specialist with Standard Restaurant Equipment Co., a local Rational dealer.

The units, which start at about $15,000 but can pay for themselves in less than a year and last for 12 to 15 years, can essentially replace most of the traditional equipment in a kitchen – convection ovens, steamers, grill tops, broilers and deep fryers.

Rational isn’t the only player in Jetsons-style cooking technology. Competitors include Wisconsin-based Alto-Shaam and Ohio-based Cleveland-Enodis, though Zeman can, of course, give chefs scores of reasons why Rational is superior, he said.

A Germany company that first made convection ovens, Rational invented Combi-steamer technology in the 1970s, which combined a steamer and a convection oven. The technology has since evolved into a programmable system that continuously monitors the food and varies the temperature, airflow and humidity inside the unit to achieve the desired result.

“In 2004, they came up with a cooking process so that now, all you have to do is press the button, choose what you want to cook and tell it your desired results, and the unit does the rest,” Zeman said. “You can roast, saute, steam, pan fry, bake broil, deep fry . . . ”

The units, which are even self-cleaning, are already in use at local establishments such as Ventana Canyon, Beyond Bread and kitchens at hospitals, schools, casinos and hotels.

“It’s the most important piece of equipment in this kitchen, by far,” said Ken Harvey, banquet chef at Ventana Canyon. “Couldn’t do without it.”

Ralph Chavez, executive chef at La Posada, a retirement resort in Green Valley, said a lot of chefs are just scratching the surface on what the units can do in saving time, money and energy, and freeing up chefs to be more creative with other aspects of cooking.

“It’s almost like the sky is the limit. The uniformity of the product and the increased yield you get because everything is moister and not overcooked, there are just so many things about it that are superior to the old way of doing things,” said Chavez, who oversees a kitchen that serves an average of 1,100 meals a day. “We can do 96 omelettes in I think about five minutes, and they all come out perfectly, and you can slow-cook things like prime rib and pork loin overnight, and it will cook them and hold them at just the right state.”

The overnight process is a huge selling point for chefs, Zeman said.

“All the braising and slow-roasting that kitchens do is something that a chef always needed to constantly monitor, and it also tied up your cooking equipment,” he said. “With these, you load them up with food for a hundred people, push a couple buttons, go home, come back the next morning and it’s done.”

Zeman spritzes a tiny bit of oil onto breaded eggplant, puts them into the unit, and minutes later pulls out golden, crispy wafers that look every bit as if they were dunked in a deep fryer.

“People just can’t fathom not having a deep fryer and all the grease, but that’s what you can do with these centers,” Sikora said. “It’s a much healthier way to cook, and saves up to 60 percent in energy costs and a tremendous amount in food loss.”

The savings in energy come from the fact that the first thing a chef does in the morning with a conventional kitchen is turn every piece of equipment on full blast, Zeman said.

“They have to have all the ovens and fryers and fans on and water boiling, and they have to keep all that stuff on full blast all day even when they’re not cooking anything so it’s ready to cook when they need it,” he said. “With the SelfCooking Center, it’s off until you program it to cook something; when it’s done, it shuts itself off.”

That means chefs are not only saving on the energy that would be pulled by all the traditional equipment, but also on all the energy it takes for air conditioners to cool down the kitchen, Sikora said.

“With a regular kitchen, you go outside and the electric meter is spinning like a top,” he said. “With this system, it takes about 30 seconds to preheat the whole thing, and when you’re not using it, it’s not using any power.”

Executive chefs can even program, control and monitor the unit remotely, ensuring a level of consistency that’s all but impossible with different cooks with different levels of experience and competency, Chavez said.

“What this really does is kind of modernizes your technique, because you’re getting the same results as when you did things the old-fashioned way, but you’re technique has been modernized and streamlined,” Zeman said. “But you’re also getting a level of quality and consistency with all your product that you could never get before, because the unit is cooking everything to the exact specifications you want every time.”

So how soon will it be before such units are available for home kitchens? Don’t hold your breath. You just can’t put a SelfCooking Center into your average home kitchen, Sikora said.

“Everybody wants to put one in their house, but they don’t realize how much equipment and insulation you have to have for something this powerful,” he said. “It would burn your house down.”

Zeman is still burning down the house at Ventana Canyon two hours into his demonstration, showing no signs of petering out.

“It’s a fun job. I get to see a lot of chefs I’ve worked with over the years and meet new ones, and once they see for themselves how much money and time they can save and how much easier it can make their lives, the product just kind of sells itself.”

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