Combination ovens can serve as the jack-of-all-equipment-trades in your kitchen. One combi oven can do the work of a convection oven, braising pan, steamer, holding cabinet, smoker and even a dehydrator.
“Daypart use is another aspect of a combi oven that successful users explore. The unit might be a total prep steamer in the morning, preparing vegetables or other products in bulk for the entire day, and a total convection oven in the afternoon, baking potatoes or other starches for the evening’s use. Meanwhile, it might be used as a combi à la carte piece of equipment on the line when service occurs,” says Paul O'Keefe, vice president of national accounts for TriMark.
A lot of operators think the purchase of a combi oven is a chef-driven decision and shy away from what they aren’t always sure of, says O’Keefe. In fact, it’s almost just the opposite.
“The effective application of a combi oven takes a lot of guesswork out of precise preparation and menu execution,” he says. “In a lot of ways, it’s a technology-driven decision. Savvy operators understand that they can maintain a consistent product in a smaller footprint with this multi-use piece of equipment.”
The key to the purchase and application of this equipment is the initial training and R&D needed to make the product work. “Once menus are established and combi recipes are programmed, then the unit becomes a tremendous labor saver and the return on investment is well on its way to being realized,” says O’Keefe.
Before you make the investment, first look at these key points.
When it comes to combis and filter systems, a one-size-fits-all approach is a risky path. “Sometimes we find customers who have tried to operate their combi using the same filtration system they use on their steam,” says Edward Soehngen, corporate chef for B.S.E. Keystone, a manufacturers’ rep firm based in Brooklawn, N.J. “Or worse, some people don’t realize they even need a water filter for the combi.”
After all, water can make or literally break your combi oven. An excellent starting point in your research would be to ask your water filtration provider to test your restaurant’s water quality so you know what type of filter system your future combi would require. Most water utilities will provide a regional water quality report for free; however, it is not as accurate as measuring water quality at your actual location.
“The test would analyze water acidity and alkalinity, TDS, [total dissolved solids] hardness, chlorides, chloramines and more,” says Denis Livchak, a lab manager who has spent more than six years testing various combi ovens at the Pacific Gas & Electric Food Service Technology Center in San Ramon, Calif. “The results will show what level of water filtration is required from carbon filtration to reverse osmosis system and whether water softening or descaling is required.”
“Each combi manufacturer will indicate water quality specifications needed for their units,” Livchak says. “Most manufacturers will void the warranty if your water quality does not meet the minimum quality requirements.”
The Right Installation and Ventilation
Certified installers are an absolute must for your new combi oven, which will require a filtered and an unfiltered water connection, a drain, an electrical connection and/or a gas connection. “Most issues with combi ovens that I see in the field stem from improper installations,” Soehngen says.
Even seemingly straightforward aspects such as the water hook up can have pitfalls. “Combis need one connection for filtered water to create steam and a second to condense steam back to water, so it can be sent safely down the drain,” Livchak notes. “Make sure you are not using expensive filtered water for both hoses — this does happen!”
Adequate ventilation is another aspect. “Gas boiler combis, for example, have three vents: one for gas exhaust, one for boiler steam and one for oven cavity steam,” Livchak says. “You need to make sure your hood is deep enough to contain the steam billowing out from the door if it’s opened mid-cycle.”
And last, but hardly least, “be sure to check what clearance will be needed between your combi and other cooking equipment,” Soehngen says. Combis, with their many high-tech components, need a buffer zone to keep their electronics from getting fried by nearby cooking activity. Alto-Shaam, for example, offers a line of combis with zero clearance requirements, giving them a smaller required footprint than more traditional combi ovens.
About Those Cleaning Cycles...
Most combis have several cleaning programs that range from a quick clean without detergent to intensive washing and drying cycles that may be required after slow cooking proteins. “Look over the spec sheet and make sure automatic cleaning is indeed specified,” Soehngen says. “Some manufacturers offer an à la carte menu where you choose your combi’s features.”
Looking ahead to after your unit has arrived, don’t even think about veering away from your manufacturer’s suggested cleaning chemicals. “Trying to cross-match chemicals from different manufacturers could ruin your oven, since each maker’s cleaning cycles are designed differently,” Soehngen says. “Always use the recommended cleaning solution. Otherwise you could clog or compromise your investment.”
Training Time For All
Be sure to build training into your team’s schedule before and after the new combi arrives. The training can come from the manufacturer’s rep or dealer — or both — and is crucial to ensuring that your team makes full use of the combi oven’s abilities, and that it receives the proper maintenance.
Make sure everyone who will interact with the oven, from chef to cook to maintenance staff, is included. In large facilities especially, the person who has been trained to use the combi is not always the one cooking on it. “At a Las Vegas casino, I saw two $20,000, full-sized combi ovens that, according to the chef I spoke to, were being used mainly to poach eggs,” says Livchak, shaking his head. “Inadequate training can cost an operation money, be it from an expensive combi being underutilized or cleaning cycles done wrong.”
Soehngen, who spends much of his time teaching operators how to use Alto-Shaam combi ovens, agrees. “A restaurant may send a couple of people to the training course and then make them responsible for filtering the information to everyone else,” Soehngen says. “Depending on the make and model of the combi, the training can last several hours, during which a huge quantity of information is imparted in a short time. If your people miss something or don’t fully understand, the team will get insufficient info or wrong info.”
Bottom line on training: “Send everyone who will need to put their hands on the oven, or ask your rep to make multiple visits to reach them all,” Soehngen advises.
All in all, TriMark's O'Keefe says, “Combi ovens are the future. As millennials become the decision makers of our hospitality institutions, they will have a greater understanding of this technology and embrace the versatility of the product!”