With or without a star chef slaving over it, a bespoke range has an undeniable cachet as the centrepiece of a new kitchen. The specialist factories which turn them out continue to enjoy full order books and a Rolls-Royce reputation. But, as with a luxury car marque, bespoke ranges can cost at least twice the price of a modular range assembled from off-the-peg units.
Users should get what they paid for, with a well-planned bespoke range likely to last twice as long thanks to craftsmanship and heavier-duty components.
Visual considerations can also influence the situation. AA Hotel of the Year Calcot Manor, near Tetbury in Gloucestershire, opted for a Charvet bespoke island suite two years ago for its open-plan main kitchen. "It looks the business," comments director and executive chef Mike Croft. "It's on display, and we often give our guests a guided tour around it."
Its appeal goes beyond the cosmetic, however. A complete absence of gaps in the top makes it very easy to keep clean, and Croft believes that a standard modular suite incorporating the same facilities - a high output wok, two planchas, two solid tops, griddle, salamander, fryer and two pass-through ovens - would require a lot more room.
However, the Manor's outside catering business, Williams Kitchen at Calcot, dictated a more industrial approach, so it was kitted out with a high-volume range from Charvet's 1000 modular series. More recently, a central island suite using 900 series off-the-peg modular sections has been specified for the Gumstool, Calcot's traditional country pub.
The Witchery by the Castle, at the gates of Edinburgh Castle, bought off-the-peg when it chose three open and one solid-top ranges from Imperial Catering Equipment. The main concern of head chef Douglas Roberts was to have a straightforward installation, able to cope with the relentless demands of 300 covers a day, seven days a week.
"They are easy to clean and control," he comments. "When the kitchen is busy, the last thing you need is a complicated piece of equipment to figure out."
Imperial doesn't offer the option of a one-piece top, but a one-piece front landing ledge serves to clamp all four appliances tightly together to prevent ingress of food debris. And the series offers flexibility within its standard mix-and-match permutations. For example, two of the ranges have powerful infrared salamander grills and one of the modules is a Sizzle'N'Chill, which has a refrigerated storage cabinet under the hob rather than an oven.
"Standard oven space isn't necessarily what a lot of people need any more," comments Mark Poultney, Imperial's sales director. "Having refrigeration instead doesn't cost much more than buying a hob and fridge, but it's a lot safer in terms of the top staying securely in place."
Richard Brackenbury, executive chef at the Links Trust clubhouse in St Andrews, Fife, likewise ensured that the units were all sealed together on his range, which is assembled from Falcon modules.
The component parts of the Falcon cooking suite in the Links Trust kitchen at St Andrews include two Chieftain fryers with in-built filtration, a Dominator chargrill, back-to-back solid-top cooking ranges with gas oven underneath, a gas salamander and - unusually for a cooking suite - a tilting bratt pan, important for the busy banqueting operation the Links Trust restaurant has. "There are no cracks and gaps where food debris can collect," Brackenbury observes. "I've had that problem in the past, making the range a nightmare to clean."
Given that cooking ranges are one of the big consumers of energy in the professional kitchen - with items such as solid tops turned on at the start of a shift and not turned off until the end of the shift, regardless of how much cooking is actually being done - Falcon Foodservice Equipment has addressed the issue of energy cost by making induction heating an option on its bespoke ranges.
Popular option While Falcon can build ranges which have all-induction hobs, an option proving popular is to have a hybrid stove top with conventional gas or electrical heating, combined with induction for rapid cooking. Falcon says the benefit of having an induction option within a cooking range is that, in quiet periods of the working day, the main hobs or solid top can be turned off while there's still the instant heat of an induction hob to cook food at short notice.
The Beeches, a family-run hotel in Standish, Lancashire, opted for modular components - from the Ultra series by Garland, part of Enodis UK Food Service - but these were custom-assembled under a 5mm-thick, one-piece top. The result is a 5.2m-long kitchen centrepiece comprising two solid tops, six open burners, an electric fryer, a gas chargrill, a bain-marie, two pass-through electric ovens and two electric grills.
The new kitchen enables the hotel to cope with 2,000 diners each week in its Stable Brasserie and Wheatsheaf function suite. "It doesn't just look the part," comments head chef Rob Fairhurst. "The one-piece top is easy to clean and the guys say it saves them around two hours' cleaning time a day."
Trevor Burke, managing director of Exclusive Ranges, which handles UK sales of French-made Rorgue bespoke ranges, cautions chefs to consider airflow implications. "Suiting a lot of modular units together and then putting a one-piece top on may look fine, but it's what's going on under the surface that caterers must be aware of," he points out.
That especially applies if individual modules have heat-trapping side and rear panels. "Multiply that by half a dozen units - as you might find in a typical island range - and the level of heat built up below the worktop can become very high indeed," Burke says. "As a result, these types of installation are extremely prone to failure, as the components are simply not built to withstand the heat."
Bespoke Rorgue ranges counter such problems with a framework that allows maximum airflow right across the unit. Burke also sells Ambach modular ranges, but with no rear or side panels on individual modules.
Greater capacity Two key benefits cited for modular ranges are that, first, they're easier to install, since the individual sections can be delivered through an ordinary doorway, and second, they're inherently more future-proof.
"You may need greater capacity more quickly than you thought, or a pasta boiler rather than a griddle if your menu changes," says Nick McDonald, marketing and export director of Lincat. "With a modular range, these adaptations can easily, and inexpensively, be accommodated."
That point is conceded by Geoff Snelgrove, director of Bonnet (UK), which has separate factories making modular and bespoke suites. "If the cross-members in the frame underneath are in the wrong place, it may be very difficult to change an appliance within a bespoke range without major reconstruction," he says.
But bespoke manufacture can accommodate all sorts of special requirements at the initial design stage, such as suites with built-in combi-ovens.
Snelgrove points out that it's often hard to appreciate the complexities of suite operation from external observation. Two ranges with identical external appearances may actually have quite different internal construction. Bonnet's Maestro Classic traditional bespoke range has, like many modern ranges, a one-piece stainless steel top, but beneath that is a 6mm cast-iron layer - and that makes it possible to have a much larger heated surface.
"As well as getting intense temperatures around the bull's-eyes, the chef gets to know outer areas where the temperature is just right for holding," Snelgrove says. "On a 0.5sq m solid top, which might normally take six to eight pans, you get a bigger heated area able to take on another 10 pans."
Roger Flanagan, managing director of Universal Foodservice Equipment, which exclusively distributes Italian-made Baron equipment in the UK, estimates that a good quality modular suite typically works out at about half the price of a bespoke range with corresponding fitments. He concedes that the modular suite might not last 20 years - "but it will certainly give good service for 10 and, during that time, equipment no longer needed can be taken out and replaced by kit that any new chef needs to keep on top of menu trends".
Flanagan also maintains that modular range design has been constantly improving in terms of key components such as pan supports, cast-iron solid tops and chargrills. He claims that almost any option possible on a bespoke suite can now be replicated in a modular suite, at half the investment.
Totally customised However, bespoke range-building is also changing, notably in more compact systems such as the French-manufactured Athanor suites now specified by several UK restaurants. UK importer Signature FSE emphasises that these can be totally customised to specific menu needs, but a complete suite can be made as small as 2,800mm long by 1,400mm wide, in line with the ever-tighter spaces available in city-centre outlets.
Multifunctional sections such as planchas (suitable for pan-heating or direct cooking without pans) combat the tendency to go for "belt-and-braces" options and help make the most of space, as well as moderating overall cost.
"A bespoke suite will provide better power and performance than modular equipment," says Stephen Hobbs, director of Signature FSE. "However, they don't need to be complicated, cram-it-all-in arrangements. The flexibility of components incorporated into the overall design is the key to efficiency."
Anthony Demetre, chef-patron of Arbutus in London's Soho - who is aiming for a sleek bistro-brasserie concept, able to deal with as many as 150 covers per service - initially thought that site and budget restrictions would dictate a line-type modular cooking approach. But the bespoke Athanor range gives him sufficient flexibility to deal with all mise en place pan work and stock production each morning, switching to a more classical meat/fish/veg/garnish/sauce mode during service.
The range comprises two 900mm gas solid tops, two double planchas (suitable for pan-heating or direct cooking without pans), an open burner, two gas under-ovens and a double hot holding drawer.
The relative compactness of the suite also contributes to smooth operation. "Communication and workflow around the range is far greater than I could ever have envisaged," says Demetre. The overall kitchen project was carried out by distributor The Carford Group.