A plate retherm system has helped the Milwaukee Athletic Club delight the senses of its diners and its culinary staff.
The thought of cooking sirloin steak for a 300-person banquet can make many chefs cringe. But not Zac Licau. In fact, the Executive Chef at the Milwaukee Athletic Club (MAC) has steak for 300 down to a science, thanks to a high-tech plate retherm system now being used at the private club in Wisconsin’s largest city.
When the MAC, which was founded in 1882 and has occupied its current, 12-story building in downtown Milwaukee since 1917, was renovating its kitchen seven years ago, Chef Licau started looking for new ways to work better and smarter. He wanted a leaner, more efficient kitchen to control costs while also improving food quality.
This goal was particularly geared toward banquets, which produce a significant portion of the club’s food-and-beverage revenue. “We looked at new trends and what equipment we could buy that would make things easier in the kitchen,” says Licau.
Enter plate retherm—a process where food is cooked, chilled and reheated to serving temperature. All of the preparation, seasoning and cooking can be done a day ahead of time. On the day of the event, the kitchen staff simply has to reheat the plated food.
The technique can significantly cut down on time, stress and staff within the kitchen—and while the MAC had never used a retherm system in the past, Licau and the club’s other chefs and staff quickly became believers when they were introduced to a state-of-the-art plate retherm system provided by Alto-Shaam, the Menomenee Falls, Wis.-based manufacturer of foodservice equipment.
Proven At All Levels
To get familiar with the process and how a plate retherm system could help meet Chef Licau’s new objectives, the MAC’s culinary team first toured Alto-Shaam’s corporate kitchens and then also visited the kitchens of several Alto-Shaam customers, to see a plate retherm system in action and get honest feedback from other chefs about their experiences with it.
“When we started talking to Alto-Shaam, they invited us out there to see everything they had, gave us a walk-through and showed us demonstrations,” says Licau. “We weren’t walking into it blindfolded. We got an inside look at the system.”
After seeing the system at work, the Milwaukee Athletic Club staff was sold. The club purchased two 20-20es gas combitherm ovens, a blast chiller, five hot boxes and a smaller oven for a la carte dining.
The new equipment met the club’s need for mobile, yet sturdy and dependable equipment. MAC’s main kitchen is located on the fourth floor of the club, next to its Grand Ballroom. Banquets are also served on the second floor, third floor, eighth floor and rooftop, with each floor housing a small satellite kitchen.
“Everything in my kitchen is on wheels,” says Licau. “We move tables and equipment around on a daily basis. We needed to be able to take the hot boxes to all the different floors and set up and break down quickly, to move to another floor right away.”
The Alto-Shaam hot boxes passed the test. “Hot boxes are big and not the lightest equipment in the world,” notes Licau. “But these hot boxes move with us and move well. We don’t need a gigantic person hauling them around. They do everything we need them to do.”
The Learning Curve
One challenge the MAC chefs faced with the new system was re-teaching themselves how to cook. “After so many years, you know how to do things one way,” says Licau. “But it is nice to learn a new way to cook and to start thinking outside the box. We were both nervous and excited to take on this new challenge.”
But the chefs at the club were not left alone to figure things out. Once the system was installed, a team from Alto-Shaam came to the club to work with the kitchen chefs to help them get acclimated. “They were here every day, working side-by-side with us for as long as we needed them,” says Licau.
This training and support, provided at no additional cost, was critical for a seamless transition, he adds. “We were nervous because we still had to operate as usual. You can’t stop serving just because you got new ovens,” says Licau. “Once the nervousness passed, we jumped in with the new system, and it was easy.”
It took the kitchen staff about a month to get fully acclimated to the new setup. Now, seven years later, Licau and his sous chef still experiment with what they can do with the system. “We still work closely with Alto-Shaam,” says Licau. “They come here and show us new stuff—and we teach them things, too.”
Less is More
The system has had a significant positive impact on MAC’s banquet business, Licau reports, by simplifying preparation and presentation, while also expanding menu possibilities and improving quality. With its previous system, he says, the kitchen staff would spend two to three days prepping for a large event. Then, during the event, an army of cooks hustled to get plates through the line.
“Everything had to be cooked and then the food sat, waiting to be served,” says Licau. “If you left it too long, it tended to overcook. If you sauced it ahead of time, the sauce might dry out and the plates wouldn’t look appetizing.”
Today, the kitchen can do all the event prep in one day with less staff. “When I first started here 10 years ago, we had eight to nine people always working in banquets alone,” says Licau. “Now I have two people. That’s not due to cutbacks; I just don’t need any more people than that with this system.”
And with less staff—and less stress—the kitchen is calmer. “I’m not pacing around worrying that the food is getting overcooked,” says Licau. “As long as I know 10 minutes in advance, I can make the plates hot and they can sit in the hot box for up to an hour without me having to worry about them. As a chef, I can breathe more, instead of saying: ‘Make them eat, make them eat!’ ”
Additionally, Licau can now pay more attention to the food itself. “I have more time to focus on the flavors, garnishes, plate presentations and all of the very important things that make a chef a chef,” he says. “If you can’t take a picture of the plate, it doesn’t leave our kitchen! It has taken us to a whole new level.”
With the help of the Alto-Shaam system, the MAC now offers menu items that are not typically served in such large banquet quantities, such as perfectly cooked, flavorful sirloin steaks, scallops and even lobster.
“We get to work with more fresh fish and more delicate meats now,” says Licau. “We can use the meats that we would typically only serve in individual servings for large events. It is very rewarding when people say, ‘I’ve never had that at a banquet.’ ”