Space savings and versatility are just a few reasons Greg Bolton, food and beverage director at Downstream Casino Resort, swapped out convection ovens and a rotating rack oven for RATIONAL iCombi Pro combi ovens. The Quapaw, Okla., casino operates a variety of food and beverage concepts and each one relies on RATIONAL.
“We got to a point where we knew we would be in a position to do combi cooking,” says Bolton, who’s also a RATIONAL Certified Chef. “We looked at several different styles and brands and RATIONAL was the one that we felt fit our profile best because of all its amenities.”
Bolton oversaw the transition to iCombi Pros at the casino. He also traded a traditional tilt skillet for a RATIONAL iVario Pro. And when it came time to build Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff, Ark., he helped specify iCombi Pros for it.
Teachable Moments: Hands-on equipment training leads to getting the most out of iCombi Pro’s advanced technology at Quapaw Nation casinos
Small Footprint, Big Impact
Bolton has walked into plenty of kitchens throughout his foodservice career; his mother started her first restaurant when he was nine years old. Over time, one thing he’s noticed is that kitchens are growing smaller.
“At the end of the day, our footprint is only going to become smaller in the back of the house and larger in the front of the house, requiring more production from a smaller footprint,” Bolton says. “With a RATIONAL, you have that capability.”
Downstream Casino Resort, for example, replaced six convection ovens with four iCombi Pros in its buffet and still managed to increase production amounts, even with fewer staff members. The equipment cooks fast, Bolton says. Plus, it can do so much more than a convection oven; the casinos use iCombi Pros to slow roast meats overnight, proof dough and even cook sous vide-style.
Making the Move
To ensure employees used the iCombi Pros to their full potential, and didn’t default to dry heat in manual mode, Bolton focused on training. He took the following steps:
- Got up to speed. He learned everything he could about combi ovens. “I was intrigued because I knew from the beginning the equipment was going to do two things: It was going to be more efficient and it was going to be a labor-costs savings,” he says. By learning as much as possible, he in turn could better walk staff members through
- Worked side by side. “The key thing for a chef overseeing a transition from convection to combi is to be hands-on and being able to be there,” with staff members, Bolton says. “Keep an open mind that they don’t like change and they feel uncomfortable sometimes.” Throughout training, he collaborated with employees and touted the benefits of the equipment. He continues to train, helping employees find new and better ways to do things.
Slow and Steady
Staggering the equipment installations also helped with training. Downstream Casino Resort first added an iCombi Pro to its bakery, and then gradually put in the rest. “We kept the installations about six weeks apart so each kitchen would have time to acclimate,”
The iVario Pro marks one of the casino’s most recent installations and employees are exploring all the ways to use it. Bolton appreciates its programmability—especially helpful with industry-wide high turnover rates—and the even heat distribution. In the future, he is hoping that other items in his kitchen, such as his flattop grill, would work
Pro Tip: RATIONAL’s ChefLine marks one tool the casinos use for ongoing training. Here, corporate chefs provide culinary support. Dial 866-306-CHEF (2433).
Start to Finish: the equipment programming on iCombi Pro and iVario Pro enable Downstream Casino Resort to produce menu items with consistent results at the push of a button.
Pick a temperature and turn the fan on or off. Those were the only options available to Downstream Casino Resort’s employees when using convection ovens. It was about as limited with their tilt skillet as well.
Eager for something more programmable, the Quapaw, Okla., casino researched iCombi Pro combi ovens and a tilt skillet-like iVario Pro—equipment that would free employees from planning their day around how long something was going to cook. The intelligent units also could help them turn out menu items with reliable results.
“With an iCombi Pro, you have so many more advantages because you’re controlling not only your heat, but the moisture and the airflow. You’re controlling every element that it takes to produce a consistent quality product,” says Greg Bolton, food and beverage director at the casino and a RATIONAL Certified Chef.
Today, the casino uses iCombi Pros instead of convection ovens and a rotating rack oven, and an iVario Pro instead of a tilt skillet. Skilled or not, employees simply push a button, and the equipment automatically cooks a wide range of menu items from beginning to end.
Bringing an iCombi Pro in-house marked Bolton’s first step in equipment programming for the Downstream Casino Resort. (He has since overseen the installation of iCombi Pros at sister concept Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff, Ark.) Next, he set to work, starting with vegetables.
“Honestly, it was a hit and miss. There was a lot of R&D. But once we got through R&D, we started getting it refined, we started building the recipes and building the programs in the ConnectedCooking platform,” Bolton says. ConnectedCooking, a digital kitchen management solution, allows the casino to remotely program all its RATIONAL equipment.
Bolton points to how helpful RATIONAL was throughout the R&D process. “I can’t thank Chef Joel [Elliott] enough for being with me to help with this because we’re a very large property. He had a lot of history with RATIONAL and the products and he was able to help us build some base recipes.” The casino also turned to the RATIONAL ChefLine for support.
Once Bolton had three or four vegetables programmed, he worked on a handful of proteins and eventually, breads. He made notes and took pictures. Recipe by recipe, he built a virtual cookbook of sorts in ConnectedCooking using his laptop, though he says the units themselves will directly take recipes too.
Along with consistency, Downstream Casino Resort has realized labor savings and food waste reduction by using the iCombi Pros and iVario Pro. With the iCombi Pros alone, Bolton says, the casino can produce two to three times the amount of product with a third of the number employees compared with the convection ovens.
He points to the casino’s Spring River Buffet as an example. With convection ovens, employees prepared one large pan of chicken at a time and then moved it to a warmer with the hope that it would go through the buffet line before it was too old and had to get thrown out. Now, employees can put a pan of chicken in an iCombi Pro and it’s done in 12 minutes. They’re able to cook to-order versus in bulk quantities because of the equipment programming capabilities.
“My words to anyone who’s starting to think about the iCombi or iVario versus anything they currently have is, you’re not going to feel bad about making that decision,” Bolton says. “The support is there, and the equipment programming will make your life so much easier.”
lar equipment maintenance matters: iCombi Classic cleaning cycles keep Grand Geneva Resort & Spa’s kitchens operating efficiently.
Grand Geneva Resort & Spa offers guests a variety of food and beverage options, from fine-dining restaurants to a casual bar and grill. As many as 12 kitchens support the all-seasons resort, which sits on 1,300 acres in Lake Geneva, Wis.
Every kitchen relies on the same set of RATIONAL iCombi Classic combi ovens (both 20-full size) located in the banquet kitchen and readily accessible via a service elevator.
“All of our concepts, from the Geneva ChopHouse to Ristorante Brissago to Grand Cafe, use the RATIONAL equipment. Banquets is maybe the one that gets the most use out of them,” says Executive Chef Dustin Urbanik. He joined the property in 2018 as the ChopHouse’s chef de cuisine and rose through the ranks.
Urbanik oversees the upkeep of the combi ovens, which were in place when he arrived at the resort. He says with regular care, such as running a self-cleaning cycle daily and deep cleaning weekly, they work well.
“Like a car, where you do oil changes on it to keep it running, you keep the combi oven clean every day,” Urbanik says. “They’re built to last, and they work like a charm so long as you’re cleaning them every day and not beating them up.”
One example of a repair Urbanik managed was when the combi oven’s self-cleaning function didn’t work. It gave an error message. “We called the engineering department and they came and looked at it and couldn’t figure it out, so we called RATIONAL and they gave us a few equipment maintenance options, a few self-remedies to look at,” he says. With help from RATIONAL, the resort’s team found calcified water had clogged some filters. The team thoroughly cleaned the filters and the combi oven was back online.
To ensure the combi ovens operate at peak performance, new hires at the resort get one-on-one training with an experienced chef on how to use and perform regular maintenance for the equipment. They learn how to handle the cleaning tablets, interpret the messages on the display screen and other steps.
Fast and Versatile
Looking ahead, Urbanik aims to add more RATIONAL combi ovens to the banquet kitchen as the 355-room resort continues to grow. He appreciates their high capacity, variety of cooking functions and space-saving feature.
“They’re big enough units that they can accommodate a lot of products, especially important for a busy resort like us, and they’re so versatile,” says Urbanik, explaining employees will, in a matter of a few hours, go from roasting chicken to steaming potatoes to switching back to roasting another menu item. “They save not only time, but space in the kitchen that you would need to do all those functions [with traditional equipment].”
Employees also value the quality of the product the iCombi ovens produce. At the ChopHouse, for example, they prefer to use the units for a mushroom side because they can get a really good roast on them at the right time and temperature versus braising or roasting them in the restaurant, Urbanik says.
Overall, he says, “They’re a really great piece of equipment to help solve a lot of problems.”
Building Partnerships With Smart Equipment Specifying: Erickson Senior Living outfits its kitchens with iCombi Pros with support from RATIONAL
It was the finishing, or “plating,” feature of RATIONAL’s iCombi Pro that caught the attention of Philip Maloney, senior director of culinary development and operations at Erickson Senior Living.
The foodservice team at the Baltimore, Md.-based senior living community developer and manager wanted to change how they served meals to their continuing care residents.
At the time, employees bulk prepared menu items in a central kitchen and then transported them hot to remote pantries near the point of service. “Everything was coming out of the steam table,” Maloney says. The process resulted in fewer menu choices and plenty of food waste.
Ready for a change, the team, who also provides a modern independent living dining program, found a solution in the iCombi Pro. The finishing feature allows employees to bring plated menu items (previously par-cooked and blast chilled in the central kitchen) to serving temperature in the pantries only minutes before serving. The process enables the team to provide more menu choices and better food quality. It also helped reduce food waste from more than 20% to about 5%.
Help Along the Way
Today, Erickson Senior Living, with a national network of communities in 11 states and more than 28,000 residents, relies on nearly 40 iCombi Pros, with double-stacked 6-full size units in its main production areas and 6-full size models with ventless hoods in its pantries.
Support from RATIONAL played an important role throughout the specification process. It started with a beta test. “When we were looking at combi ovens, we did a beta test in one of our kitchens and had two competitors side by side. The RATIONAL came out on top, hands down,” Maloney says. “We had a problem with the other brand about a year into it, and the model that we purchased was already obsolete. The customer support wasn’t there.”
Maloney says his local RATIONAL manufacturers’ rep, High Sabatino in Jessup, Md., also served as a partner. “They opened up their kitchen to us anytime we wanted to come down and use the ovens. They always had a chef available to us to answer questions.” Distributor TriMark Adams-Burch of Landover, Md., also offered support by helping establish ordering guidelines, order tracking, pre-site surveys and more services.
Do Your Homework
Maloney recommends chefs who are interested in combi ovens start the equipment specifying process by doing their research and understanding what outcome they want to achieve. “When we first got into it, I had an outcome I was looking for; we ultimately wanted to change the landscape of how we serve food to our continuing care residents,” he says.
Make sure the equipment technology matches your needs. “Look at it like transportation. If you only need something to get you from Point A to Point B, and nothing else matters, it doesn’t make sense,” to buy an expensive car, he says. It was on the visits to High Sabatino that the team first figured out how to get the most out of the iCombi Pros. RATIONAL helped them decide on the right size models to specify after studying volume
Programmability, along with the finishing feature, marks one of Maloney’s favorite technology pieces on the iCombi Pros. Staff members push a button to start the cooking process; they don’t need to know the required oven temperature, humidity level or cooking time. “The oven tells them when it’s done. They pull the menu item out, and it’s perfect every time,” he says. “There’s zero variance; it’s wonderful.”
Attention to Detail: Proper site preparation and recipe research sets up Demera for the iCombi Pro
Employees at Demera, an Ethiopian concept with two locations in Chicago, used to stand at a range every day cooking pounds of onions in a stock pot.
“It was labor intensive,” says Tigist Reda, the brand’s owner and chef. “It took an hour and a half for one pot. Somebody had to stand there and stare at it.”
To reduce labor, Reda specified double-stacked RATIONAL iCombi Pro units, each holding six full-size pans, for the Uptown location. Now, employees place onions in the combi ovens and turn to other tasks. Plus, the combi ovens help boost consistency. “Having dishes come out the same way is huge for us,” Reda says.
And while onions are a big part of the menu, the restaurant also uses the combi ovens for other vegetables. Soon, Reda plans to hone the settings for sauces and meats, and to lean on the equipment to support a growing catering operation.
Prepping the Kitchen
Looking back at the transition to the iCombi Pro units, Reda says a designated point person for the installation and plenty of training on how to use the equipment made it a success.
Reda relied on Dave Eidenberg, owner of the dealership and design consultancy Right Side Up Kitchens, to prepare the site for equipment installation day. The two have worked together for 10-plus years.
“He did all the planning work; I didn’t have to touch anything,” she says. The combi ovens went into the same spot on the cookline as the stock pot range, which the restaurant got rid of completely.
Eidenberg says, “You can’t just pull something out and put a combi oven in. You’re going to add more water hookups, a new drain and more electricity to your kitchen. Someone needs to concentrate on it and understand what they’re going to do.”
Once the site was ready, a RATIONAL-approved installer got the combi ovens up and running properly.
Reda and her team at Demera took advantage of many training opportunities with RATIONAL before, during and after the equipment installation of the iCombi Pro units. They worked on recipes with corporate chefs at the manufacturer’s culinary center in Rolling Meadows, Ill., and at Demera.
“We had to rediscover what setting, what cooking method, worked for us. They were patient with us,” says Reda, referring to RATIONAL. “We kept telling them ‘the onions need to be right.’”
For operators looking to make the same transition, Reda says, “Go play with them at the center. Play with the product. Take into consideration how much volume you do and know what size you need.”
Eidenberg adds that RATIONAL offers solid after-sales support. “RATIONAL is a global company that delivers well here in the United States,” he says. “It’s very high-quality service.”
All photos by Allison Rezendes