CHEFS spend most of their working life standing over stoves; hence the plethora of complete modular suites incorporating hobs, ovens, griddles, salamanders and bains-marie in an integrated island closely matched to the kitchen's meal production needs.
Despite the wide choice available, there has been clear interest over the past five years in highly specified ranges which can be manufactured to order, rather than simply assembled from a set of component units.
These "bespoke" ranges are almost entirely a French phenomenon, nurtured by that country's tradition of well-patronised upmarket restaurants. But while French chefs may love these ranges, the number of UK installations by companies best known for making them - Rorgue, Charvet and Bonnet - is still modest. There are no more than 50, according to Buttress, which imports Molteni - but the buzz created among top chefs has been sufficient to generate a response from mainstream range manufacturers.
The most notable has been that of Falcon Catering Equipment with the creation in 1992 of its Special Development Unit to produce customised ranges with one-piece integrated tops, special trims and colour finishes.
More recently, two other major UK suppliers have sought to make their presence felt in this specialist sector: Hobart Still, with the bespoke capacity of its French subsidiary Comby Chef, and Garland with range suites made by Technyform of France, which was taken over by Garland's multi-national parent company Welbilt at the beginning of this year. The products are to be marketed here in tandem with Garland's well-established heavy-duty ranges.
What constitutes a bespoke range? In theory, the customer can specify any configuration he wants. In practice, classic menus don't vary that much and no manufacturer wants to start from scratch every time a range is built. As far as possible, existing components are used for things such as burners and baffle plates, along with proven grades, metal thicknesses and designs for side-panels and doors.
It is mainly in the body of the bespoke range that customising occurs. Specialist manufacturers should be able, at a price, to incorporate all the desired cooking sections within a seamless top fabrication and match this closely to the requirement - for example, with bullnose edging and rounded corners - and the available space.
If a pillar gets in the way, for instance, it should be possible to accommodate it, even to the extent of varying the shape and size of an oven compartment. And special requests for plating space, pan-holding areas and other facilities can also be met. Bespoke ranges have also integrated provision of services in a way that is not always practicable with modular-range suites (although it is becoming so, as more island suite designs employ a central spine).
For example, if water taps and wells are required at various points around the range to facilitate pan filling or food preparation, a bespoke manufacturer will provide them.
Requests for cosmetic details such as stoved enamel side panels in the restaurant's house colours (Harrods has a bespoke range in green, for example) plus handles, decorative trims and even the chef's signature in solid brass can also be met.
As this might suggest, traditionalists such as Rorgue, Charvet and Molteni function in much the same way as a car bodyworks specialist, consulting with the end-user or kitchen designer through each stage of the design process. Small teams of engineers then hand-build the range through to the finished product. It is shipped to site to be welded together in the kitchen, usually sealed permanently to a concrete plinth.
With Molteni ranges, special heatproof concrete is poured inside the range to insulate the ovens and top, while Rorgue uses heatproof bricks. Even without all that extra weight - which, in the case of concrete, means a hefty demolition job if the range ever needs removal - these ranges make massive use of metal.
The one-piece top on a Rorgue range, for example, is 10mm thick compared to the 4mm typical of most heavy-duty modular ranges. When the Swallow Gosforth Park hotel near Newcastle had its hand-made Bonnet Maestro delivered, the kitchen floor had to have special reinforcement and 14 men were needed to help manoeuvre the 31/2 tonne beast into position.
Was it worth it? Head chef Simon Devine gives a high rating to the range's build quality, appearance - rich blue panels with brass trim - and the performance of the hobs on the one-piece top. But he feels that a conventional modular system might have been easier to adapt. The menu has changed since the installation, which was based on the specification of Devine's predecessor John Cruikshank, but modification of the range would, Devine feels, be difficult.
For Neil Pass, head chef at Rules restaurant in central London, exceptional heat retention is the key point of difference with most conventional ranges. The restaurant has a Charvet bespoke island range installed in its busy 500 covers-per-day kitchen August last year. It comprises four solid tops, two open burners, four ovens and a bain-marie.
The cost was, Pass estimates, twice as much as for a conventional heavy-duty modular range with the same configuration. But he believes that the extra investment was worth it. "These ovens are a lot weightier than your average range off a factory conveyor belt," he points out. "You can cook more efficiently with them and that, in turn, leads to more consistent standards in the restaurant."
But Pass cautions would-be users to have a good extraction system to deal with the higher outputs. It took three months before the range "settled in" at Rules, largely due to new designs of a gas pilot and valve being trialled by Charvet.
Other users of traditional French ranges likewise report inconsistencies in performance despite the high price tags attached to the equipment. At Claridge's in London, premier sous-chef William Brown says that both of the hotel's bespoke ranges - a Rorgue in the main kitchen and a Molteni in the banqeting kitchen - have had oven door problems. Failure of the springs makes such massive doors dangerous and the hotel's own engineers cannot replace them to the requisite standard. This has meant bringing in help, at considerable cost, from France.
"You see these adverts for oven doors where chefs are invited to stand on them, but anybody can make an oven door that does that. What matters is the spring when you are opening and closing the door dozens of times every day," he says.
Both ranges were installed six years ago as part of a major refurbishment and both provide a chef-friendly working area, Brown says. The Rorgue cost about twice as much as the Molteni and its stainless steel exterior is not as attractive as the other's red enamelled steel panels and brass trim, but it performs far better, Brown believes.
Heat performance differs on each of the four Molteni ovens. Cracking of the concrete cladding because of heat strain has also been a problem on occasions.
The benefits of using complete suites are becoming apparent beyond the upmarket hotel/restaurant sector. Eryri Hospital in Caernarvon, Gwynedd, put in a made-to-order Comby Chef range 15 months ago, and unit catering manager John Harrison is putting in two more at other health authority sites in the area. As well as considering the menu match, Harrison studied energy usage; the new range at Eryri needs about 65,000 BTUs less than the combined gas output of all the equipment being replaced. He also brought servicing and spare parts availability into the equation.
It remains to be seen whether truly bespoke, hand-made ranges can become anything more than an esoteric sector of the catering equipment market but their influence on range design looks assured and producers of modular heavy-duty ranges are increasingly expanding the installation flexibility of their products. o
Bespoke range supplier guide
Ambach: Dawson MMP
Bonnet Maestro: Masters & Andren
Charvet: Berkeley Food Equipment
Comby Chef: Hobart Still
Falcon Catering Equipment
MKN Kchenmeister: MKN(UK)
Technyform: Garland Catering Equipment
For details and telephone numbers of all the above companies call Caterer & Hotelkeeper's information hotline on 0839 373737/8. Calls charged at 39p per minute cheap rate and 49p per minute at all other times.