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Alto-Shaam Goes Back to School

CT PROformance Oven

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few days in Perry, Georgia with my buddy Bruce Marlette of Master Marketing at the Georgia  School Nutrition Association’s Bi-Annual Equipment Academy.  It is a great opportunity for foodservice equipment manufacturers of all types to present their gear to nearly two hundred decision makers from school districts all over the state of Georgia.  I had a blast doing it and I can’t wait until the next one in 2016!

I had the opportunity to speak with five separate groups of folks about our Alto-Shaam Combitherm ovens.  Most of my friends would think, “Andy gets to talk?  No WONDER he had a good time!”  But here was the challenge:  40 minutes per group.  Normally I get an audience for a whole day or even two days, and they are captive in our Culinary Institute at the Alto-Shaam headquarters in Menomonee Falls.  How was I going to distill my message into a tight time frame and still get people excited about the Shaam?  Here’s what I focused on:

  1. Made in the USA:  

    This means a lot to the audience I was speaking with, not only because we use American labor, but because we build our gear to withstand the wear and tear of a tough American kitchen.
  2. Ease of use: 

    With more and more technology being introduced into then kitchen, it’s important for school foodservice directors to feel comfortable that their technophobic kitchen staff will be able to use our ovens without freaking out!
  3. Programmability: 

    This ties directly into the ease of use.  When a chef or director decides how something is to be cooked- we can program the oven to perform that process at the single touch of a button.  This obviously helps create consistency from kitchen to kitchen within your district and day to day within your cycle menu.
  4. Variety: 

    I focused a bit on the variety of sizes, features and options Alto-Shaam offers, so everyone understood that we have the right oven for almost any situation.
  5. Boilerless VS Boiler: 

    Since most of the people in attendance have used either boiler based combi ovens or steamers, I wanted to drive home the benefits we provide by offering a boilerless model as standard.  No more service calls to replace a boiler which has been neglected for months and is now full of lime buildup.
  6. Probes: 

    Most combi ovens offer a probe to measure your food temperature.  It’s a great feature that allows you to cook your food until it’s done, not until a timer expires.  The problem is that when the probe gets damaged, it’s VERY expensive to replace.  The attendees really liked to hear that our probe is easily removable and replaceable.  This means less downtime AND you’ll be collecting valuable HACCP data while you cook!
  7. Culinary Support: 

    Of course I had to my culinary team’s horn a little!  We do a lot to support our K-12 users with one-on-one help developing cooking procedures and cycle menu programming.  Plus we’re always only a phone call away!
  8. Servicability: 

    When you take the side off of an Alto-Shaam combi oven, the “guts” remind me of a Chevy small block engine.  Other units remind me of my wife Kelly’s Prius- great car, but how in the world am I supposed to change the alternator (if it has one?).  The attendees were very impressed at the clean and spacious component cavity they saw in our unit.  Anything that helps a service person get in and out faster creates value for our end users.

A lot of information for a 40 minute talk, no doubt, but add into the mix that Bruce was cooking in the oven (using my pre-programmed recipes) the entire time, and I think we really provided a valuable presentation of the Combitherm and its benefits.  The feedback we got from attendees was very positive and I know Bruce is going to be a busy man following up with all the interested directors this spring! 

Oh, and in case you haven't heard, we have a new combi! Go go to learn all about it. 

Sales vs Problem Solving (or “Why I Sleep So Well At Night”)


Sheraton SeattleWhen I started working at Alto-Shaam seven years ago, I was excited to be working for a world-class company that supplied so many amazing kitchen tools to chefs and cooks around the world.  The only concern I had was that I knew what it was like to be on the other end of the sales equation. Most of us hate to be “sold to”, and I am no exception. During my days as a “real chef”, a salesperson in my kitchen felt like a pothole in the road- an annoyance to be driven around.  How was I going to do my job without getting that little pang of guilt every time I saw that impatient look in a chefs eye when I walked in the back door?

Luckily, I found soon enough that this wasn’t my job at all. As I watched Chef Robert Simmelink during my first few years, I don’t think I noticed him selling ANYTHING! Don’t get me wrong, people wanted to buy Alto-Shaam products after they spoke with Chef Robert, but it wasn’t because he started flipping through a catalogue and rattling off marketing slogans. He ASKED QUESTIONS. 

One of the most rewarding things about working at Alto-Shaam is solving people’s problems.  By asking questions, Chef Robert was learning about challenges and opportunities his customers were dealing with every day. Because of his years of experience in the kitchen, he was able to relate to these problems and build a relationship with people.  When he suggested possible solutions, they listened. They respected him.

I love the feeling I get when I leave a kitchen, knowing I left behind a workplace with less stress, more fun, and more profits. I like to say “It’s easy to make friends when you bring the best toys to the party”. We Alto-Shaam chefs are lucky to have a toolbox full of amazing gear to help address almost any kitchens. Solutions sell themselves. I just help people to discover them. 

Do you have any examples of kitchen challenges that were solved by installing the right equipment? I’d love to hear them!

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They don't ask for much…


2013 holiday

For a lot of my chef friends the work is just beginning. The next two weeks will be filled with long hours, large crowds and demanding customers. The only family they will see for most of the holiday season will be wearing white coats and aprons. They may find time to toast in the new year from behind a line while cleaning up the kitchen and putting out the last few deserts of the evening. 

At a time when many people decide to use a few days of vacation to visit family or enjoy a trip to somewhere warmer, these people are punching in at 7 AM and leaving at midnight- for you. Let's always remember that the little luxuries we have in life, because someone else dedicated their time to provide them.

People in the kitchen usually find a way to have a good time, so don't feel sorry for them. When you get put through the meat grinder every night of the year, the people you work next to truly become your other family.  Don't get me wrong- I'm very thankful to make up for lost time on the holidays by spending it with family who I neglected for years to cook for strangers. I just don't take it for granted.

So when you're out and about this holiday season, remember my friends. They don't ask for much. Just a little holiday spirit thrown their way. I'm sure you'll get it back many times over.  

There's No Replacement for Experience


describe the imageBeing an Alto-Shaam chef means being many things to many people. Our job description can really be summed up as “be a resource”. When our engineers want feedback on a new feature, accessory, or product, they rely on our team to provide real world insights to the process and the expectation. When our marketing department wants to craft a message that will resonate with our audience, we hear the question “What matters to chefs?” When our sales team is working with a customer, we get the call to talk “chef to chef,” since most of us do in fact speak in a common language, do we not?

For most of us on the Alto-Shaam culinary team, it’s been a few years since we worked every day in a kitchen every day like we did in our “former lives”. Of course, we get lots of opportunities throughout the year to spend time with our customers in their kitchens to train them on how to get the most out of their new Alto-Shaam equipment. Most of these cooks and chefs don’t know just how important their opinions and feedback are to us in better supporting their needs and continuing to develop our products. Alto-Shaam has a corporate culture of continuous improvement, and being able to provide the "Voice of the Customer" for our projects back home is invaluable.

Just this week while I was in Detroit working with our friends from Centerplate at the newly-remodeled Cobo Center, I learned a few things that raised a few eyebrows when I got back in the office. A lot of things just don’t come up when you’re sitting in a meeting in street clothes 600 miles from the customer’s kitchen:

#1:  The mobile companion warmers (20.20MW) we sell as part of our plate retherm system accommodate both our “plate trolleys” and our “pan carts”. The pan carts are also the default cart you need in our largest roll-in combi ovens to do all of your production cooking. When these carts are inside the mobile warmers, there is no way to tell which trolley is inside. The wheels do stick out the bottom, but they all look the same. At the Cobo Center, for example, they have FIFTY mobile warmers. Sometimes, finding the shelf carts in the hallway outside the banqueting kitchen is an exercise in haystack diving. I guess if you live with that problem everyday, you start thinking about solutions. Chef Matthew Zatirka suggested to me, “Can you just make the wheels a different color on the plate carts?” Brilliant!  Now I don’t know if this will happen or not (I hope so), but where else can you get this stuff? I love it!

photo 3#2:  After we spend a couple of days showing kitchens how to execute a plate retherm system (we served 500 for lunch yesterday and didn’t even break a sweat), it has regularly become clear that the toughest part of the process is getting the service staff on board. Pulling food from the box, saucing it, and covering it, sometimes takes a tad longer than the servers are used to waiting. Together with Chef Matt at Cobo, we devised a plan for future events where the conveyer belt they used to plate the food up the day prior could be used to deliver food to the servers at mealtime. Because of my experiences in Detroit, I’m fully convinced that a conveyer system is critical for large banquet operations, especially plate retherm kitchens. I'll be excited to see how the new idea works when they get it into full swing.

So aside from just having fun in the kitchen once in a while, I really gain a lot of valuable information to take back to my team just about every time I’m in the field.  It’s a critical part of what I do and I’m convinced it’s the only way to keep the pulse of our customer base. Thanks to my position at Alto-Shaam, I learn more than ever, make new friends all over the country, and I get to share my knowledge and experience with people who need and appreciate it. Life is good!

If you’d like to see a fun video of my two days with my pals at the Cobo Center, click this link:

The Elements of Dining


Plate of ScallopsChefs are an interesting lot. There are few fields where those who toil so hard to make their mark on
the world are such enthusiastic consumers of the work of their competitors. Yes, we have a reputation of being nit-picky when dining out, and yes our impossible standards are often paired with unfair powers of observation. Despite this, no one enjoys a perfect restaurant experience more than a chef!

I’m no exception, and I’ve been luckier than most, having eaten at amazing restaurants around the world. Some I’ve enjoyed more than others. In fact, this is a favorite dinner table conversation of mine. Over the years, I’ve asked the following question of hundreds of dining companions. The variety of answers I have received could fill a book.

“Place the following four elements of restaurant dining in order of importance. Explain your answer.  Food, Service, Atmosphere, Company.”

A large percentage of chefs won’t even think before answering. “Food! Of course it’s all about the food!”  I can respect that. Listen, when you’re passionate about food, this is a logical answer. I just think there are other ways to judge a night out. 

I’m going to give you my answer, not because other answers are wrong, but because I’d love to hear your thoughts to add to my collection!

Chef Andy’s Elements of Dining - In Order of Importance:

1. Company - No matter how bad things are, there are people in my life who can always make things fun.  Either we’re having so much fun we don’t notice bad things around us, or we enjoy ourselves even more making fun of it. (I know - Bad Andy!) Conversely, there are some people who would ruin my day if I let them. Sharing an expensive dinner in a five-star restaurant with these people is like slowly scooping my eyes out with a grapefruit spoon. No thank you.

2. Atmosphere - I’ll put up with a lot of things for a good view.  Really, the atmosphere is the first thing we notice as we enter a restaurant. It’s a combination of location, lighting, sound management, smells, décor, and even the other diners! With all those elements of my experience working together, it’s unfair to ask my perfectly cooked rack of lamb or broiled salmon to do the heavy lifting. If I’m eating in the Space Needle, lukewarm soup won’t ruin my night. If the restaurant is so loud I can’t hear my dining companions, the best house-made charcuterie platter won’t save the day. This may get me into trouble with some of my chef friends, but this has just been my personal experience.

3. Service - Great service can fix a lot of things. I think many of us chefs can think back on times when a great server bailed us out of a bad situation where the kitchen made a mistake.  Bad service on the other hand can certainly ruin a great meal. I’ve had this happen many times in my life, where I thought, “That was a good meal, but I’d rather cook it myself than have to suffer through that horrible service." I just really feel that service has a tremendous effect on my decision to go back to a restaurant a second or third time.

4. Food - I know, I know. I can hear it now “Chef, how can you say food is the least important thing about your dining experience? I mean, why are you going out in the first place?” I actually partially disagree with the notion that food is WHY we dine out 100% of the time. For sure, there are times when this is the case- I almost don’t care WHAT happens at Spiaggia in Chicago, as long as I get some of Chef Tony’s gnocchi. But MOST of the time, I’m going out to spend time with friends, colleagues, or family.  If the conversation is good, we have a few good laughs, and we create a few memories, I count it as a successful night! Of course there’s the additional fact that most of us chefs can replicate that meal on the plate in our own kitchens at home. We are going out just to go out, and that’s a good thing. We need to do it more!

I’m eager to hear what YOUR answer is. One thing I think we all can agree on - if all FOUR of these elements come up short, it’s time to introduce the fifth element- the BAR! But that’s another blog post...

NC State Takes It Up A Notch

Alto-Shaam in NC State Kitchen

During my six-plus years with Alto-Shaam, I've been to some pretty cool places, two Atlantic crossings on cruise ships, a visit to Puerto Rico, a couple of trips to Spain, and countless flights across the US from New England to LA, the Great Northwest to Miami. One of my favorite things to do is meet new friends in kitchens around the world and leave them with life being just a little bit easier and maybe even a little more fun. Cooking isn't supposed to be painful folks!   

Last week I had the opportunity to do just that on the campus of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC, home of the Wolfpack. The school is going through a massive renovation of the Talley Student Union including a beautiful new food court with four separate dining options and a cool shop that sells dairy products made from the school's agriculture program. 

Behind the scenes, a commissary kitchen hums at the
heart of this operation. It cranks out foodAlto-Shaam Mobile Warmers for thousands of students every day, with everything from beef barbacoa to North Carolina style pulled pork and breakfast burritos.

On top of the commissary work, this kitchen doubles as the production facility for the campus catering department. With the aid of a wall of companion roll-in mobile warmers units (the same rack fits into the combi, chiller and companion warmer units!), the catering staff will be able to prepare, chill, and plate meals for 600-plus, and come in to work with piece of mind, knowing tonight's banquet is already staged and ready to go.  

The engine for this machine - a little Wisconsin steel: Two floor standing Combitherms, a double stack Combitherm, a Cook & Hold smoker, and two roll-in Quickchillers. The smoker produces the hundreds of pounds of smoked brisket and pork needed to supply the burrito shop daily, and the chillers allow production to be consolidated for efficiency. Pork one day, beef the next. The combi ovens retherm the products on demand with a quality difficult to duplicate with older technology.  

It's easy to make friends when your gear brings so much to the table. I love seeing the look on people's faces when they say, "I can do WHAT?" "You're welcome, we are always here to help" I usually say with a grin. On to the next town.  

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Alto-Shaam Cooks "Everything But The Squeal"


I love social media. It allows us to connect with people from all sorts of backgrounds, opinions, and perspectives. Even when we disagree, the right attitude can help us learn from each other and get a better understanding of the world around us.

Just last week, we showed up on a follower's twitter feed when she mentioned that our tag line "cooks everything but the squeal!" was the "worst ever" saying "people who eat pork want humane treatment of animals, right?" As a vegetarian blogger, culinary treatment of animals is clearly a priority for her.  

I couldn't agree more. At least speaking for myself, I can't stand  to see ANY animal treated inhumanely, as I feel it is our human responsibility to care for the creatures of our earth, even those we use for food.

In the kitchen, it's true that we chefs develop tough skins, tougher nerves, and a sense of gallows humor that many others don't appreciate or understand. But watch a chef handle a fresh loin of tuna, a lamb saddle, or, yes, a hogs head, and you'll see nothing but reverence and respect for the animal that gave its life for our creations and for our sustenance.

Our "everything but the squeal" campaign, paired with our participation at the annual Star Chefs International Chefs Congress in New York last week was meant to highlight how Alto-Shaam equipment can help make utilization of often neglected parts of the animals we harvest for food. A more complete use of the animals in our food supply is a critical element in the concept of humane treatment, embraced by cultures worldwide.

At the Star Chefs event, we featured the work of our chef friends who shared techniques for pork neck, head cheese, face bacon, and other artisanal pork preparations- all made better and easier with the use of Alto-Shaam gear. So remember, "cooking everything but the squeal" is a good thing!  Especially if it's delicious!

Every Culinary Journey Is Different

I remember my first day in culinary school, when our chef asked each of the students “What do you want to do with your culinary education?”  Probably three quarters of the students said they had dreams of opening their own restaurant.  Of course two thirds of THOSE students had never even worked in a professional kitchen before, so I guess they could be forgiven for their naïveté and enthusiasm.  Restaurateurs are a very special breed of person, and over the years I’ve developed a kind of incredulous respect for them.  We should all be grateful that there are crazy people who are not only willing, but EXCITED to work like slaves, worry like parents, and take epic risks to contribute to our culinary culture.  Crazy as I am, I learned eventually that the lifestyle just wasn’t for me.  I’m just not the right KIND of crazy!

In a Facebook post the other day, another Chef friend of mine commented that he had started in the business twenty years ago, and his younger self could never have guessed that today he’d be working for a “household name” cheese brand as Corporate Chef.  He wondered “what will the next twenty years bring?  

Alto-Shaam Culinary InstituteI can certainly relate.  My early career meandered through small restaurants, hotels, catering, country clubs, a casino, and even a huge “business and industry” type foodservice operation.  There are things about (nearly) every kitchen I’ve worked in that I miss today, but my position here as Corporate Executive Chef for Alto-Shaam Inc. has been a perfect fit for me, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  Many of my favorite things about being a chef in an active kitchen translate wonderfully to working for a company like Alto-Shaam, where customer education, solution creation, application development, and marketing efforts are all central to what we do.   Today I have to be equally comfortable conducting a seminar, attending an engineering meeting, working a photo shoot, writing a blog, or creating tutorial videos, or consulting with customers on their menu development.  Never a dull moment!

A chef told me early in my career that the food business was really all about people.  I was a littleAlto-Shaam Culinary Institute skeptical, preferring at the time to think that as long as you made a perfect plate of food, people would always make room for you in the industry.  Today I totally agree with him.  Preparing a good meal for someone is a personal act of giving, and if we approach our careers as givers, there will always be a place for us.  Today my giving tends to be measured more in ideas than in covers, but I do like to think about how many plates of food I may affect each year with all the help I’m able to give cooks and chefs around the country through the path I’ve been drawn down.

A young friend of mine just started culinary school this month.  I envy the sense of adventure and open possibilities that she must be experiencing as she heads down her own path.  Who knows where it may lead her over the next twenty years?  Whatever the future holds, I hope she gets the same chances I have had to help people enjoy, understand, and create better food.  The world can always use a few more givers.

If you would like to join myself and our other chefs for an in-person seminar in our state-of-the-art culinary center, please click below. 


I Want a Demo!



Sometimes, when life throws us changes, the things you resist the most turn out to be huge positives once you accept them for what they are.  That new coworker you’re not too sure about becomes one of your best friends. There’s a new James Bond character, and he ends up being your favorite yet.  Whatever.

When Alto-Shaam introduced the CT Express oven two years ago, it was really just a cuter, smaller version of the Combitherm ovens that we have become so well known for. I really liked the size and convenience of having a smaller oven to work with on the smaller projects I’m often involved in.  The oven was perfect for me and I didn’t want anyone to mess with it.

Then, last year I was told that we were developing a “browning bar”/”toasting element” for the oven.  Everyone said “We can toast sandwiches! We can melt the cheese on a French onion soup!" But I tend to be a little on the skeptical side and wasn't so easily convinced. Not that a feature like this wouldn’t work as promoted. I just wasn’t sure who would use it, or how we could market it. It kind of seemed like a feature that didn’t fit into what combi ovens were really designed for. And as usual, I was pretty vocal about my opinions! Everyone told me, “Chef Andy, just play with it. You’ll like it.”
Alto-Shaam Chef Andy with the new CT Express CombithermThen it hit me! “It’s just a broiler!” Sure it could be used for “finishing” food, like melting cheese and browning the tops of casseroles and things, but this is a great production tool! I started sliding in half sheet pans of diced vegetables, lightly oiled bell peppers, Cajun-dusted salmon fillets, crème brulees, chilled rotisserie chicken pieces.  

Introducing intense radiant heat to this oven really puts an already super-versatile piece of equipment into overdrive! The slight crispy texture I can get on my salmon, the way my roasted peppers toast up on the skin, but stay moist in the flesh- these are all huge additions to my culinary toolbox!  

I can confidently say that there is no oven in the world that can cook my crème brulees at 180°F without a water bath, and then caramelize the sugar on the top later for service. Or steam off some shrimp first and then broil a few pork chops. I’m LOVING this oven!

Maybe next time our engineers give me a new toy to play with, I’ll be a little more open to the possibilities! I hope you all get a chance to cook with one in your own kitchen!



Plate Retherm to the Rescue


Once in a while, I get the opportunity to work on a project so interesting that I need to share it with anyone who will listen.  

This past week, Chef Ryan and I spent 4 days working in a kitchen with very special needs. This operation needs to serve breakfast and dinner to 2,400 very active (and very hungry) university students- five days a week!  This is over 860,000 meals a year.

But that's not all! All the meals are plated. No simple buffet. Everyone enters at once and must be seated with a plate of food in 10 minutes.

Alto-Shaam Plate Retherm CartsThe old system really needed help. For example, dinner's food was cooked throughout the morning and held hot until around 3pm when the plate-up started. Between 3:00p and 6:30p, hot plated meals were loaded into old hot boxes with fans, many needing sternos to maintain temperature. The first diners got food that was cooked at 9am, plated at 3pm, and sat in a cabinet until 6:30pm. Just serving something edible was a tremendous challenge.  

You can imagine how early breakfast was in the works!

Now, the kitchen has eight Alto-Shaam  20.20 Combitherms, five QC2-100 Quickchillers, and 16 20.20 MW Heated Holding Cabinets.  Chef Ryan and I spent the week helping to develop a schedule and system to get the food out much faster with all this new firepower.  

First, food is prepared and cooked in the combi ovens.  This alone will save a crazy amount of time. Previously, one employeeAlto-Shaam Rolling Cart System would spend all day just cooking bacon!  Now this task can be done in just an hour or so.  

Scrambled eggs were another huge time sucker, but are now made as easy as 1,2,3, by cooking eggs in the bag and blast chilling them. (Check out a recent Snapguide I put together showing this process).

After all the food is cooked, it is chilled to 38°F for short term storage.  Each day at 8am a team begins plating that nights dinner.  It takes about 2 hours.  Then the meals are placed back in the cooler, and tomorrows breakfast is plated from 1 to 3 pm.  This is a total of 48 carts of food!

Alto-Shaam Retherm SystemRetherming of dinner starts about an hour before mealtime.  Three turns in the eight combi ovens equals the 24 carts per meal, with the first sixteen going into the mobile warmer and the last eight being rotated into empty warmers after service has started.  

The chefs we worked with were all smiles when the finished product came out steaming hot, moist, and FRESH!  Of course the first three weeks will involve a learning curve for the staff of over 30, but this operation is well on their way to pulling off a remarkable turnaround in quality, speed, and efficiency.  It was a fun and exciting week!


If you want to learn more about the Alto-Shaam plate retherm system, join us for a demo!

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