Does the traditional cooking range have a future?

18 October 2004
Does the traditional cooking range have a future?

The traditional cooking range has been around in its present form for at least 100 years. Gas and electricity have replaced coal as the fuel of choice, but a range is essentially a boiling table with an oven below - and while young chefs might think the solid-top is relatively new to British kitchens, in fact, all coal-fired cooking ranges had to be solid-top.

Even when gas and electricity became available as fuels, the range still did almost all of the cooking: boiling on top, deep-fat frying in a friteuse heated on the range, baking and roasting in the oven underneath.

What has changed in prime cooking has been the emergence of task-specific equipment such as the deep-fat fryer, the convection oven and the combi-oven. Large kitchens may still have boiling hobs and a down-below oven, but they are likely to be part of an island suite which can combine anything from a wok burner to a pasta boiler.

So are the days of the traditional cooking range numbered in all but the smallest commercial kitchens? That is the view of Paul Gayler, executive chef at the Lanesborough hotel in London, who this year has taken out all his gas ranges and replaced them with an island induction suite in the main kitchen.

The Lanesborough is renowned for its classical elegance, and part of the classical design is that the main kitchens are, as in many old hotels, in the basement. This, says Gayler, produced an intolerably hot working environment for chefs, particularly as the kitchen ceilings are not high. There is ventilation and air conditioning in the kitchen, but energy costs were being incurred to heat, then cool and extract the atmosphere.

Gayler's move away from the traditional range has been to fit a huge induction island suite. It's 2m x 4m in size and has 15 large induction hobs, each capable of taking four cooking pans. Even in the busiest of services, Gayler says 60 pans is enough. The unit includes deep-fat fryers, electric pull-down grills and even an induction bowl-recessed wok burner.

The equipment is from Swiss manufacturer Menu System, and the kitchen design is from Catering Connections. For Gayler and his Lanesborough kitchen team the traditional six-burner cooking range is history.

With remarkable candour for a major UK manufacturer, Nick McDonald, marketing and export director of Lincat, admits sales of cooking ranges are "constant" rather than booming. He points to the rise and rise of combi-ovens as one of the big drivers away from traditional cooking ranges.

McDonald adds that electric ranges are beginning to push in front of gas-fired versions, not least because of the stricter ventilation and waste gas extraction legislation coming from the Health & Safety Executive.

Where he sees cooking ranges holding market share is in the medium-duty market, where a good commercial six-burner can be bought for £1,500. "Compare that with what the same money would buy you in the domestic cooker market," he says.

A similar manufacturer's view comes from Peter Eglin, commercial director of cooking range manufacturer Parry Catering. His view is that while island suites are gaining ground in large hotels and restaurants, in the wider catering industry smaller operators still have a huge market share and are never going to need, or want, island suites.

Says Eglin: "When combi-ovens first came on the scene there were predictions of the death of the traditional range, but it never happened. It's the same with island suites. Given the choice, just about every chef would love to have an island suite in the kitchen, but there are two major issues to be considered: available space and money. A lot of restaurants and hotels don't have much of either."

CESA, the Catering Equipment Suppliers' Association, represents almost all the manufacturers and importers of cooking ranges in the UK, and its director Keith Warren says the market is not shrinking for traditional six-burner ranges, but changing. "Large kitchens such as city centre hotels or hospitals might be replacing worn-out ranges with island suites and combi-ovens, but in real terms, that big end of the market is relatively small compared with the catering industry as a whole," he says.

Warren adds: "For thousands of pubs, medium-sized hotels and restaurants, there may not be the need nor the budget for an integrated island suite. The number of brands and models of cooking ranges in the UK shows the competition in this area and the fact that the sector remains as vibrant as ever. Those who make and import cooking ranges wouldn't be doing that if the market was shrinking."

Moorwood Vulcan is one UK manufacturer which is keeping faith with tradition as well as embracing the new. It has just launched the Vulcan medium-duty cooking range that includes within the six gas burners a powerful 10kW down-below oven and a wok burner.

By far the most popular configuration for a traditional cooking range is six heat points of either gas burners or electric radiants - or the equivalent surface area in a solid-top - and an oven underneath. There are four-burner ranges for very small operations, and a few manufacturers do an eight-burner size.

The US-built Montague ovens being sold in the UK by Aberna go massively larger than that, with eight powerful gas burners, two solid-top gas bull's-eyes, a griddle and three ovens.

The idea of extending the flexibility of a cooking range was what persuaded Chris Green, chef-patron of the Trout at Tadpole Bridge pub in Buckland Marsh, Oxfordshire, to go for a Montague cooking range.

With up to 80 covers on a busy night and a reputation built on fresh food with innovative menus, why not an island suite? The answer, says Green, is simple and raises a problem that lots of traditional pubs face: "Pubs like ours were not built for a food operation, and the kitchen area is small. An island suite takes up a lot of room in the middle of the kitchen. We just haven't got room for one."

What Green has done is to buy a Montague Legend gas range designed to fit flush to a wall. Says Green: "Flush to the wall means no food falling down the back of a free-standing range."

A feature of Montague equipment is that it is able to be bolted to other prime cooking units in a straight line. This is what has been done in the Trout kitchen, with the six-burner range at the centre of the unit alongside items such as deep-fat fryers, chargrills and two huge burner units for stockpots. For Green, the days of the traditional six-burner range are numbered. But the number is still quite high.

CESA 020 7828 7724
Aberna 01252 532222
Electrolux and Zanussi 0121-220 2800
Falcon 0800 373 821
Parry Catering 01332 875544
Moorwood Vulcan 0114-257 0100
Lincat 01522 875500
Angelo Po 01332 638030
Catering Connections 01773 836300

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