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Commerce chef-owner Moore savors power of a high-end cooking suite

Some chefs utter the names of European-engineered cooking suites with the same esteem that auto enthusiasts have for imported luxury sedans. Indeed, a high-end suite, a collection of cooking equipment unified into a versatile and attractive whole, often has a comparably lofty price tag.

Harold Moore, chef and co-owner of Commerce, an eight-month-old, 90-seat restaurant in New York with a straightforward style of American fine dining, is one of those chefs. For him, a costly French-made suite is an investment in reliability, performance and employee satisfaction.

He also noted that it is a justifiable expense even in an economy that recently teetered on the brink of disaster and at a time when many fellow operators in Manhattan are struggling. Asked if he would make the same decision again to invest $100,000 in a custom-built Athanor suite, he replied: “I’d like to think so. I’m really pleased with it.”

It is the workhorse of the Commerce kitchen, “constantly in production,” as Moore put it.

“At 7 a.m. the first guy arrives and starts the oven,” he said. “We have stocks going overnight six days a week.”

Although business early in the week isn’t as strong as he would like, the equipment gets heavier use on weekends. In fact, cover counts push 300 some Saturday nights.

“I don’t take it for granted in this economy,” Moore said. “It’s definitely scary. I hope we can maintain our business.”

Fancy cooking suites, long fixtures in European kitchens, have begun to surface in U.S. restaurants as well. Customization and versatility, along with craftsmanship and performance, are major drawing cards. Depending on the chef’s whim, they can be outfitted with a variety of ovens, fryers, grills, open burners, solid cooktops and other pieces.

Moore specified a water-bath pasta cooker, plancha and flattop on one side and another large flattop and open burner on the other side, with ovens below. At peak business, five chefs do the cooking while two others plate and finish the items. All can make eye contact, pass items back and forth, and communicate more easily than they could if they were standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a conventional kitchen line, a factor in the kitchen’s speed and productivity, Moore said.

Another selling point is workmanship. Moore said it took eight months for the suite to be painstakingly constructed to his specifications. It was custom-sized to fit Commerce’s cramped triangular kitchen. Brick is used to line the oven for insulation and heat retention. Parts and fixtures have the feel of quality. Take the oven door: “It’s made of solid cast iron, clad in stainless steel and weighs 120 pounds, but it’s counter-balanced with weights,” Moore said. “You don’t need a lot of strength to close it, but it feels very solid.”

He reports that reliability has been high, with no maintenance issues since the February opening. “With other stoves, pilots tend to burn out, handles fall off, things wear out quickly,” Moore said. “But this is really solid. Will someday a pilot or a thermostat go out? I’m sure. But it hasn’t happened yet.”

Yet another reason to invest in a suite is to woo future hires.

“It’s a very competitive world in terms of finding and retaining customers, but also finding and keeping motivated cooks in New York,” Moore said. “It’s really important to give them good equipment to make their jobs and lives better.”

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