Best known for making shorter work of banquets and onsite foodservice, the combination oven-steamer is now bringing its razor-sharp cooking precision and multi-function capability to a new realm: fine cuisine.
The “combi,” as it is popularly called, offers uncommon versatility. It features three different modes of cooking in a single footprint: convection heat, steam and a combination mode of both convection and steam. It performs an array of cooking processes, including baking, poaching, roasting, steaming and simply rethermalizing. That’s why proponents say it replaces several pieces of kitchen equipment. In Europe, where kitchens tend to be smaller and space efficiency is prized, that’s a major selling point.
In the United States, combis have been around for decades, typically in high-volume settings like hotel-catering and onsite-feeding kitchens. But they are being spec'd more and more for upscale segments. And thanks to a prominent role at the Bocuse d’Or international culinary competition in Lyon, France, in January, combis may be top-of-mind right now among more fine-dining chefs.
“The combi came into huge play,” said Gavin Kaysen, the U.S. contestant in the prestigious biennial competition, founded by the French superchef Paul Bocuse. The 27-year-old chef de cuisine of the Rancho Bernardo Inn in San Diego relied on the combi’s precise temperature control to prepare the chicken and fish dishes he was required to make for the competition. For example, take the tomato tuiles that garnished his chicken ballotine. “If they were baked in any other type of oven, they would not turn out the same,” said Kaysen. “I set it to 152 degrees Celsius for seven minutes and they came out perfectly, because the oven is self-calibrating.”
Also benefiting from combi cooking was Kaysen’s fish dish for the competition, a halibut and crab torte. “The pastry of the torte had to cook to 70 degrees Celsius,” explained Kaysen. “But halibut is cooked perfectly at 42 degrees Celsius. So we cooked each separately and put them together at the end.” He used convection heat to bake the torte, gentle steam heat to cook the seafood.
Because the combi keeps such a precise, consistent temperature, Kaysen said it helped him schedule his cooking steps and cope with the tight time constraints of the competition. Five and a half hours may seem like a long time to make two dishes, but time passes rapidly in complex scratch cooking. “When we first started practicing these platters, it took 12 hours,” said Kaysen. “That went down to four hours and 47 minutes in the competition.”
Although Kaysen did not win a medal at the Bocuse d’Or, the experience was “extremely valuable,” he said. Back in San Diego, he uses the combi regularly at Rancho San Bernardo’s El Bizcocho restaurant, which he describes as “French inspired and fanatically seasonal.” One of his signature dishes is a dry-aged ribeye steak sealed in a sous vide bag and cooked in the convection mode for a few minutes to retain juiciness. The steak is finished by removing it from the bag and pan-searing it in butter, garlic and thyme.
Such precise control is especially useful for lengthy sous vide preparations. “You can put an item in for 15 hours and walk away from it,” he said.
Will the combination oven-steamer catch on in mainstream restaurant kitchens? “I think it will in the bigger restaurants and hotels, but I don’t know if a small restaurant will see the ROI,” said Kaysen. He noted that the units with which he is familiar are regularly priced at about $24,000, although he purchased his “at a huge discount” from a Bocuse d’Or sponsor.
However, if manufacturers can bring the price down and make a combi for smaller restaurants, “It will take off,” Kaysen said.