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Operator Corner: Chef Reed Johnson

Chef Reed Johnson has over two decades of culinary experience under his belt. He’s served as executive chef at several notable Louisville area establishments, including The Standard Plate & Pour and Wiltshire at the Speed. In spring 2022, he was named executive chef at Equus & Jack’s Bourbon Restaurant/Lounge.

Reed sat down with author Steve Coomes for this wide-ranging discussion in late 2019.

A Lifelong Curiosity

Neither Reed Johnson nor his parents knew it, but as a child, he displayed the personality traits common to successful chefs. He was bright, inquisitive, easily bored, and fond of food. Johnson was the boy who disassembled toys to learn how they worked and reassembled some as hybrids using different parts. His curiosity met its match when he destroyed a pricey Teddy Ruxpin toy bear to see how its eyes moved.

Article at a Glance

[Reed Johnson] “I didn’t know how the cassette tape made the eyes move, so I took it apart. I beat the eyeballs out of it just to see how they worked.”

Horrified by the destroyed Christmas present, Johnson’s mother told her perplexed son that she spent half his father’s weekly paycheck on the fuzzy extravagance.

[Reed Johnson] “She didn’t understand that I wanted the stereo inside, not the talking bear. But I felt bad when she pointed out the cost.”

That lifelong interest in how things work would lead him to spend years mastering the CVap® oven. Well into his two-decade cooking career, Johnson hadn’t seen the vapor-heated oven until working as a chef at Artestano, a tapas restaurant. Those CVaps were small cook-and-hold models in which starches and sauces were reheated and held ready for service.

[Reed Johnson] “When it heats things up nice and slow, there’s no chance of scorching, no skins on sauces, no caramelized sugars like you get with pots or in steamtables. The quality of what you started with at 11 a.m. would be the same at 11 p.m.—if there was any leftover.”

Head Chef and New CVaps

When the same bosses called on him to become head chef at Red Barn Kitchen, a mid-scale southern restaurant specializing in barbecue, Johnson was thrilled to find larger CVaps to play with. Not intimidated by the new ovens, the novice dove in to learn more.

[Reed Johnson] “These were the big ones, the 220-volt units that had a ton of power and heated up really quickly. That was when I started to learn what they’d really do.”

Chef Reed Johnson

Fed from the Ground and the Trees

Madisonville, Kentucky, Johnson’s birthplace, is a town of 19,000 in Western Kentucky where he jokes about enjoying “a Duck Dynasty family life.” Relatives lived close by and gathered regularly for large meals centered on food from their gardens and fruit trees.

[Reed Johnson] “My grandmother was a great cook. I was fortunate that she and my grandfather lived next door. I was always into cooking with family. And I also liked art: painting and sculpture. Over time, what had been falling on paper began falling onto plates for me.”

A job at an Italian restaurant convinced Johnson he’d found his calling. He made plans to attend the National Center for Hospitality Studies in Louisville, Kentucky after high school. He earned culinary and business degrees in four years and laid down roots in Louisville. Working in multiple restaurants, he gobbled up each chef’s knowledge before moving along to the next to learn more.

[Reed Johnson] “I’m always trying to find new ways of doing things. It’s fair to say I had no idea how much I’d find to learn with CVaps. I think I’m pretty good with them now, yet I know there’s still so much more to go.”

Mastering CVap

When Johnson helped OLE Restaurant Group launch Red Barn Kitchen, he was already a skilled barbecuer. However, mastering that in a restaurant setting using CVaps called for a different skill set that required long hold times for briskets, shoulders, and even fried chicken. He quickly learned that CVap was the ideal tool for all three and much more.

[Steve Coomes] Going from Artesano to Red Barn Kitchen saw your CVap options change from cook and hold ovens to large, multipurpose retherm ovens. How did that change your cooking strategy?

[Reed Johnson] “I like to say that Red Barn was where I got the training wheels off and started playing around with CVap. The larger ones were powerful, 220 volts, and you could fill them and heat them up to 200°F in less than 90 minutes. Another thing about the 220-volt units is you could put in and pull stuff out all night long and the atmosphere never changed. They’re amazing.”

“Just like we did at Artesano, we were using them to reheat starches and sauces in heat-proof quart containers. Not only did they heat up incredibly fast in 100 percent humidity, but it was also a great way to control portions by breaking them down into quarts. They were the perfect size to heat up fast and evenly and then hold them. We’d keep those set on 150°F. But at Red Barn, where we did so much more volume, I’d set it on different stages. We started with 90 minutes of 200°F heat and then I’d dropped it down to 155°F for holding.”

Crispy fried chicken sandwich

[Steve Coomes] Talk about the increased volume and how you used CVap to adjust to that.

[Reed Johnson] “We’d have big prep days where everything was cooked to finished product, ‘quarted’ and cooled properly. Then, when we got ready for each day’s service, we reheated them in the CVap as we needed them.”

[Steve Coomes] Where did you start learning so much about CVap? Online? Networking with users? Hands-on?

[Reed Johnson] “A little bit of all of it. Winston has a lot of good material online. And there are a lot of YouTube videos out there. Being friends with Barry Yates was helpful, too. He told me lots of different methods we could apply to what we were doing.”

[Steve Coomes] Which was what, exactly?

[Reed Johnson] “At Red Barn, we needed perfect moist heat for briskets, butts, and beans. But since we also made a lot of fried chicken, it had to have an atmosphere of its own to stay crisp. Obviously, you can’t hold fried chicken with briskets. You have to pick an atmosphere for each. The good news is there are lots of different CVap designs between top and bottom that create unique atmospheres.”

[Reed Johnson] “Oh, one neat thing I bet nobody talks about that CVap does. Most barbecue places go through a lot of aluminum foil and plastic because they wrap the meat to hold in moisture. We didn’t need either with CVap. We hold it at 170°F and +5 and it’s perfect.”

[Steve Coomes] You had steaks and pork chops on Red Barn’s menu. How did you stage those with CVap?

[Reed Johnson] “Perfectly. We did a sort-of sous vide application with chops and steaks. Bagged them and brought the steaks up to perfect medium-rare and held them there for hours without denaturing the proteins. We could infuse other flavors into the meat by adding seasonings inside the bag. When one got ordered, we’d get a perfect sear and cook on it and send it out quickly.”

Striving for Balance

[Steve Coomes] Like so many chefs, you wanted to balance your work life and home life, so you tried a food sales role in hopes of achieving that.

[Reed Johnson] “Yeah, I did, but it wasn’t me. I just love to cook. Love working with other cooks, and feeding people. So, while it didn’t last long, I didn’t want to go back to working nights all the time in a restaurant.”

[Steve Coomes] What drew you back to a restaurant kitchen?

[Reed Johnson] “I worked a long time in catering for Wiltshire Pantry (a high-end Louisville caterer), which was a job I really liked. So, when I was still a distributor sales rep, I called on Wiltshire’s owner, (Susan Hershberg). We met at the Wiltshire at the Speed café. As we were walking and talking, I saw two CVaps and asked her how she liked them. She said she didn’t like them, that they screwed up product and she wouldn’t let the chefs use them. I’d known Susan for a long time, so I felt comfortable saying to her, ‘No they don’t. They’re amazing.’”

Fried Egg
English Muffins reed johnson
Local ramp bread formage blanc

Brunches and Baking

[Steve Coomes] Then, as luck would have it, the chef at Wiltshire at the Speed left, and you quit sales to take the job. I gather you auditioned those CVaps in short order?

[Reed Johnson] “Yeah, I really wanted to show Susan how amazing they were. The cool thing is I didn’t really have any idea how much they could do until I started playing with them using the café’s menu. We do lunch and brunch and really large events, so we change the menu a lot. I started experimenting with them to see how we could run things better.”

“We did brunch, so we needed to be good at egg cookery—which I say is the test of any good cook’s skills. But when you get busy, the first place where consistency goes out the window is egg cookery. So, we used CVap to do sunny-side-up eggs. Put them on a Silpat in a CVap set on 135°F, and you can hold those perfectly for hours— and they won’t lose their sheen. Of course, we didn’t have to hold them for hours since we turned them over so quickly. We also held poached eggs in water bath perfectly in CVap.”

“My sous chef loved to bake, and he used CVap for bread proofing and baking. Most kitchens are too cold or too hot to proof in, but if you do it in CVap and know the right settings, they leaven perfectly. We did English muffins a lot in CVap, and they’re perfect. We baked puff pastry in them, too, and Susan couldn’t believe how well it came out.”

“CVap is like any tool. You have to know how to use it. Once you understand the science behind it, you’ll start using it for everything.”

Using CVap for Large Events

[Steve Coomes] Talk about using CVap for large events at the museum.

[Reed Johnson] “If we had to cook that same food from raw to finished, it would take at least twice the employees to do it. I had one cook firing food, one cooked plating brigade style and I called out tickets. They pulled what they needed from CVap, garnished the plate and it was gone. In that setting, it takes the cooking out of service. We’d done it ahead of time.”

[Steve Coomes] If a group of chefs asked how to learn CVap quickly, what would you tell them?

[Reed Johnson] “I’d tell them to stage with somebody who uses it regularly. Nothing beats seeing them in action and working properly. I’d also tell them to search for CVap videos online.

I’d also tell them to talk to other chefs who use it. They’ll tell you that CVap allows you more freedom to do more things. The quick sales pitch would be to tell them it can hold cooked eggs perfectly for four hours and fried chicken to the point that, when you bite into it, it tastes like it just came from the deep fryer. I’d tell them to experience it for themselves.”

Birra style tacos Reed Johnson

[Steve Coomes] Based on your time working with it, is there any foodservice application that wouldn’t be a good fit for CVap?

[Reed Johnson] “I can’t think of any sort of food out there it wouldn’t work for. You can control humidity from zero percent to 100 percent, and temperature from 100°F for proofing and 200°F for baking. And anything you’re cooking in them will also hold perfectly in it.”

“The whole cook and hold system behind them is amazing to me. Just making something simple like prime rib…put the whole seasoned prime rib in, programming it to start with dry heat to sear and brown, then cook it for several hours, then it starts stepping the temperature down until you’ve got finished 130°F prime rib holding and ready to go on the buffet.”

“Some chefs say it reduces food costs through better yield. It does that, and it reduces food waste by keeping your products consistent. That also lowers food waste. And when you’re cooking food that doesn’t have to be remade, you’re saving on food and labor at the same time.”

[Steve Coomes] You’ve mentioned a couple of times that you appreciate its design. What’s unique about it?

[Reed Johnson] “Just making all the racks adjustable is huge. CVaps have wider rails than other holding cabinets, so a full sheet tray can slide in perfectly. You can also turn hotel pans sideways to fit. Deep hotel pans fit perfectly on those racks. If you load it smartly, there’s not an inch of waste. And you can’t really overload the unit because it’s built with two inches of space around everything. That creates its own natural convection that moves everything around.

It may not sound all that important, but they clean up so easily since they’re all stainless steel, and there aren’t any weird places for food to hide that you can’t get to. Somebody obviously put a hell of a lot of thought into them.”

Chef Reed’s Favorite CVap Settings

  • Holding poached eggs and sunny-side-up eggs: 140°F and +0 (new CVap 140°F Vapor Temp/140°F Air Temp); water bath for poached; on Silpat for sunny-side up
  • Holding fried chicken: 150°F and +80 (new CVap 150°F Vapor Temp/230°F Air Temp)
  • Pulled pork and brisket: 170°F and +5 (new CVap 170°F Vapor Temp/175°F Air Temp)
  • Proofing English muffins: 100°F and +0 (new CVap 100°F Vapor Temp/100°F Air Temp). Proof setting straight up for larger Pullman style loaves
  • Holding buttermilk biscuits: 150°F +30 (new CVap 150°F Vapor Temp/180°F Air Temp)

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