This is a good time to be an ambitious home cook. Twenty years ago, a gas cooktop with four individual burners was about as good as it got. These days, however, gas ranges might feature as many as six burners. You can have a gas or an electric burner big enough to heat a 14-inch skillet and with enough firepower to boil 20 quarts of water in 10 minutes or offer 4,000 watts of heat in just a few seconds. There are burners designed specifically to cradle your wok, grill your steak, or even griddle your pancakes.
Ovens have evolved as well. They now come equipped with warming trays, meat probes, rotisseries, and built-in baking stones. They have multiple heating elements coupled with convection fans to eliminate hot spots. They have halogen lighting and completely transparent doors. Knobs have been replaced with sleek touchpads listing as many as a dozen different cooking modes.
To determine whether all of these features are really useful or just window dressing, we invited three of Boston’s top chefs to Clarke Distribution Corp., a luxury kitchen appliance distributor in Hopkinton, Mass. Their mission was to test appliances from three top manufacturers—Wolf, Thermador, and Gaggenau—with proven recipes from their own restaurants. The question put to all of them was: Can the home cook easily use these features to create restaurant-quality meals in his or her own kitchen?
Jody Adams of Rialto on Gaggenau’s Built-in Appliances
Jody Adams doesn’t ask why anyone would sacrifice 12 inches of counter space to install a restaurant-caliber deep fryer in the home kitchen. Instead, she has more practical concerns. “Is it self-cleaning?” she asks as she pours a bottle of vegetable oil into Gaggenau’s electric deep fryer. Sadly, the answer is no. It has a drain in the bottom to remove the oil.
To test the fryer, Adams has sliced pieces of sole into short strips (or goujonettes) and coated them in a seasoned mixture of flour and semolina. Now she just has to set the temperature at 350 degrees and wait until the digital thermometer tells her that the oil is hot enough. She clearly likes the digital readout better than the thermometer on the fryer she uses at home. She lowers the basket into the oil and adds the sole strips one at a time. When they float to the surface and the sizzling slows, she removes them. “Good color, and great temperature control,” she says, nodding.
Adams turns a more skeptical eye toward Gaggenau’s electric barbecue grill. Although it has two 1,500-watt heating elements, each of which has nine different temperature settings, Adams is used to cooking her Tuscan-style sirloin, one of the most popular items on Rialto’s menu, on a gas grill. She does like the fact that this small grill has two temperature zones. “You need to sear the steak on high heat and then move it to a lower setting to finish it,” she explains. Surprisingly, the grill doesn’t have to be at its highest setting to sear the steak. “Nice grill marks,” Adams says as she turns the steak and moves it to the other side of the grill, which has been set at moderate heat. Adams pokes at the steak to test its doneness, then sets it atop a salad of arugula greens, thinly sliced portobello mushroom caps, shaved Parmesan, lemon juice, and gold leaf truffle oil. Suddenly, the most difficult part of the recipe is finding where to buy truffle oil.
Adams is far more excited about Gaggenau’s steamer. “You could make dinner for four in this,” she says, and then assembles lunch for one in just a few minutes. She sets a few sprigs of parsley on the perforated steaming pan, then tops it with a bit of arugula and braided strips of sole. She seasons the whole thing with salt, pepper, and thyme, and adds two thin slices of portobello mushroom, a squirt of lemon juice, and a pat of butter. The whole thing cooks in a little over a minute and a half. When Adams learns that the steamer also has an unperforated pan, her mind spins: Egg soufflés, custards, and mousses could all be cooked in a water bath without using the oven. Then she receives the best news about the steamer: It can be plumbed directly into the kitchen drainpipe. After all, Adams points out, “An appliance is only easy to use if it’s easy to maintain.”
Ming Tsai of Blue Ginger on Wolf’s Double Oven and Smooth Electric Cooktop
When Ming Tsai opens the Wolf oven door, his initial reaction has nothing to do with food. “Beautiful color,” he says of the deep blue enamel inside the oven. The color does look striking against the six gleaming racks and the stainless steel control panel. Tsai admires the heaviness of the door and the feel of its handle. He also likes the large digital readout on the control panel. “You can see it from across the room,” he says. But enough about aesthetics. He wants to test the oven’s convection bake and convection roast features.
First he has to turn it on, which isn’t as simple as it sounds. The oven seems to require a longer sequence of button pushing than a space shuttle launch. Tsai accidentally hits the button that swivels the control panel out of sight. Oops. He waves away all assistance and insists that “a moron could do this, which means I’m perfect for the job.” He sets the top oven for convection roast at 500 degrees and slides in a rack of lamb that has been marinating overnight in a mixture of port wine, mustard, and Asian spices.
The oven is equipped with a meat thermometer, and once it is plugged into the oven wall, the digital display will flash between the temperature of the oven and the temperature of the meat. Tsai sets the target temperature of the lamb at 123 degrees. The buzzer should go off when it reaches this temperature.
Next Tsai turns to the Wolf smooth electric cooktop. He admits that he has a bias against electric heat. “Every chef loves gas,” he says as he pours vegetable oil into a 14-inch skillet. The Wolf smooth top features five burners, one of which is 12 inches in diameter, the largest in the industry. The oil quickly shimmers, and Tsai adds a dozen of his pork dumplings, or pot stickers, to sizzle flat side down. When they’ve browned, he adds water and covers the pot quickly to steam them. This dish needs high heat to evaporate the water and keep the pot stickers crisp. Heat, it turns out, isn’t a problem. In fact, the pan becomes too hot. Tsai lifts the lid to discover that a few of the dumplings are a little overbrowned. He takes one from the pan and announces, “This would never be served at Blue Ginger.” Then he bites into it and adds, “That large burner is no gimmick. It’s what made this pan so hot.”
Finally, Tsai turns his attention to the other new feature of the Wolf range: the melt setting. He has brought chocolate ganache to melt to top his bittersweet chocolate cake. He dumps the chocolate into a pan and sets it on the stove. As promised, it melts without burning or needing to be stirred. While Tsai mixes the batter for his cake, something begins to beep. “What’s that?” he asks. The half-dozen people who have gathered to watch him cook all check their cell phones. “It’s not me,” each says. He shrugs and fills six ramekins with cake batter. Finally he looks up at the oven to see that the lamb has risen to 128 degrees. That beeping was the oven trying to tell him that the lamb was cooked. “It’s too bad,” he says as he removes the rack of lamb, “that this oven doesn’t account for human error.”
Ed Gannon of Aujourd’hui on Thermador’s Continuous Grate Cooktop with XLO
When Ed Gannon cooks at home, he works in a kitchen that was last renovated in 1970. He says his ancient gas range and poorly insulated oven will be thrown out with the leftovers one day soon, so he is very interested in the newest kitchen equipment. Among them is Thermador’s gas range, which features both very high and very low heat.
Gannon needs the highest heat first as he lays slices of seasoned foie gras into a dry sauté pan. They sizzle almost instantly and melt enough to fill the bottom of the pan with fat. “Nice color,” he says as he turns them. Once the foie gras has cooked, he reduces the heat and adds chopped apple, peeled grapes, duck confit, and port wine to make a kind of chutney. “Sugar and acidity cut through the fat of the foie gras,” he explains as he plates the chutney with the foie gras.
Next, he wants to try the XLO, or extra-low setting. Serious cooks love gas ranges because they offer instant high heat. The downside is that the lowest setting is often too high to keep pots warm without overcooking their contents. Thermador’s answer is a very low, intermittent flame. Gannon has warmed a parsnip puree to serve with a tenderloin but doesn’t want it to overcook while he roasts another side dish and finishes the meat in the oven, after having seared it on the cooktop. He turns the burner on and once the flame flares, he turns it down to XLO. Then the burner goes dead. “Doesn’t it work?” he asks. It does, he is told. On the XLO setting, the flame is on for only 10 seconds out of every minute. Unconvinced, Gannon frowns at the cold burner until the flame appears and then quietly disappears again.
Soon Gannon has all five burners going at once. He sautés king oyster mushrooms on one burner. On another burner he is boiling ravioli stuffed with braised oxtail. He removes the ravioli and seasons it with butter and oil in another sauté pan using low heat. On two other burners he has a veal stock and the parsnip puree both warming on low heat.
By this time, Gannon has pronounced the range’s extra-low setting “phenomenal. That XLO setting would be a great feature even for a commercial cooktop,” he notes. “It’s so hard to tell new cooks that it’s OK to turn the heat down.” He wishes, however, that he had brought some chocolate to see if it would melt on that setting without a double boiler. The onlookers, who have overcome any timidity about sampling the chefs’ test results, share Gannon’s regret. They know that the proper way to complete a meal of oxtail ravioli, foie gras, and tenderloin is with Aujourd’hui’s bittersweet chocolate soufflé.
Hopkinton, Mass. (800.842.5275), and South Norwalk, Conn. (866.838.9385), are open to the public by appointment only. Clarke’s web site is www.clarkecorp.com. Gaggenau, 800.828. 9165, www.gaggenau.com/us; Thermador, 800.656.9226, www.thermador.com; Wolf, 800.222.7820, www.wolfappliance.com
Chef/co-owner, Rialto, in the Charles Hotel, Cambridge, Mass. (617.661.5050) and co-owner of blu in Boston (617.375.8550)
Type of cuisine: Mediterranean
Signature dish: Roasted marinated Long Island duck with green olive and balsamic vinegar sauce.
Other projects: In the Hands of a Chef, with Ken Rivard (HarperCollins, January 2002)
Owner/Executive Chef, Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Mass. (781.283.5790)
Type of cuisine: Asian fusion
Signature dish: Sake/miso-marinated Alaskan butterfish
Other projects: East Meets West and Ming’s Quest on the Food Network; Blue Ginger: East Meets West: Cooking with Ming Tsai (Clarkson Potter, 1999)
Executive Chef, Aujourd’hui, in the Four Seasons Hotel, Boston (617.451.1392)
Type of cuisine: Contemporary American
Signature dish: Roasted lobster with Thai spices, sherry vinegar, honey, and buckwheat noodles.
Other projects: Definitely planning to remodel his home kitchen.
Food Fight By Design
Any black-tie event that involves a food fight is sure to be memorable. Perhaps that’s what the folks at Viking had in mind when they created their first annual Celebrity Chef Cook-Off. In it, a team of three top chefs from Boston would compete against three chefs from New York City to create as many five-star dishes as possible in just 20 minutes. In a sort of nod to the Food Network’s Iron Chef, but without the poorly dubbed English, each team would have to create these dishes from a box of mystery ingredients.
Viking set up two demo areas on a single stage at this year’s Anthony Spinazzola Foundation gala, a black-tie food festival held each winter in Boston to benefit hunger relief agencies and programs for the homeless.
With such high-profile New York chefs as Charlie Palmer of Aureole, Marcus Samuelsson of Aquavit, and David Burke of the Park Avenue Café working together in one small space, the only question was how quickly they would run out of burners, quibble over counter space, and begin to season each other’s dishes. The answer: almost immediately. When would they sneak onto the Boston side of the stage to turn off burners, unplug the blender, and steal ingredients? Shortly thereafter. It was only a matter of time before the arugula and crème anglaise began to fly.
The Boston side of the stage was no better. Ming Tsai of Blue Ginger pounded salmon with the bottom of a skillet, and Ken Oringer of Clio was shouting “Bam!” as he seasoned oyster fritters. Both were wearing spectacularly ugly sunglasses. They threw mushrooms and celery root at the New York team and then attempted to start the wave.
All of the trash talking and food throwing occasionally obscured one purpose of the event, which was to showcase the Designer Series, Viking’s newest line of semiprofessional cookware. The cooktops and ovens feature a sleeker, more contemporary design than Viking’s Professional Series while offering similarly exceptional capabilities. The electric cooktops, for example, can reach full power in just three seconds. That’s a noteworthy feature when you’re racing the clock, as the chefs were, although the 20-minute contest did end 35 minutes after it had begun.
Nevertheless, the event moved quickly and chaotically, while offering audience members a glimpse of how chefs make dishes seem so impressive. At one point, Charlie Palmer sprinkled sugar on some scrambled eggs and spooned them back into their eggshells with a sprig of chive. On the way to the judges’ table they magically became “egg flan.” A lamb shank seasoned with a combination of cumin, coriander, hot pepper, and cinnamon became Moroccan spiced lamb. If you really want to cook like the professionals, maybe, in addition to Viking cookware, what you need is a thesaurus.