Part Four: Chef Reed’s CVap® Tips

Read all parts in this series: Part One | Part Two | Part Three

Though Chef Reed Johnson is skilled with CVap®, he says he’s not tapped its potential. He experiments with it daily using different foods and settings, while tweaking simple things such as reconfiguring its shelves to maximize food load. He says the oven is infinitely customizable if chefs take the time to learn its virtues.

If a group of chefs asked how to learn CVap® quickly, what would Chef Reed tell them?

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 CVaps allow you more freedom to do more things. The quick sales pitch would be to tell them it can hold cooked eggs perfectly for 4 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.

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

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 cost through better yield.

It does that, and it does reduce 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.

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

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 2 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.

Lighting round question: Give us some of your favorite CVap® settings:
  • Holding poached eggs and sunny-side-up eggs: 140 F and +0; water bath for poached; on Silpat for sunny-side up
  • Holding fried chicken: 150 F and +80
  • Pulled pork and brisket: 170 F and +5,
  • Proofing English muffins: 100 F and +0; proof setting straight up for larger Pullman style loaves
  • Holding buttermilk biscuits: 150 F +30

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Part Three: Out of the kitchen, into sales, back to cooking with CVap®

Read all parts in this series: Part One | Part Two | Part Four

Like many chefs, Reed Johnson worked many long nights that kept him from his family. For a few months, he left restaurants to become a foodservice sales rep, but he didn’t like the work. A fortuitous visit to a restaurant owned by his former boss would help lead him back into the kitchen and a better lifestyle.

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.

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 for me, I didn’t want to go back to working nights all the time in a restaurant.

What drew you back to a restaurant kitchen?

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), and we met at the (Wiltshire at the Speed) café. 

As we were walking and talking, I see two CVap®s 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.”

Then, as luck would have it, the chef at Wiltshire at the Speed leaves, and you quit sales to take the job. I gather you auditioned those CVap®s in short order?

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 here.

Where did you start?

We do brunch, so we need 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 use 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 don’t have to hold them for hours since we turn them over so quickly. We also hold poached eggs in water bath perfectly in CVap.

My sous chef loves to bake, and he uses 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 do English muffins a lot in CVap, and they’re perfect. We bake puff pastry in them, too, and Susan couldn’t believe how well it comes 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.

Talk about using CVap® for large events at the museum

We have movie night event called After Hours, and we’ll put out upwards of 1,000 small plates for about 400 people. To do it, I set up the CVaps for foods that require dry heat and one for moist heat. Recently we did Latin-inspired street food, which we can’t cook to order because tickets come back too fast. So, we pre-fire a lot of that and stage it—stage almost everything. If you tried to do that in a normal kitchen without CVaps, the food would dry out on you. But CVaps set up properly lets you stage and hold that food perfectly so you can serve it in a fraction of the time.

If we had to cook that same food from raw to finished, it would take at least twice the employees to do it. Now, I have one cook firing food, one cook plating brigade style and I’m calling out tickets. They pull what they need from CVap, garnish the plate and it’s gone. In that setting, it takes the cooking out of service; we’ve done it ahead of time.

In our next blog with Reed, he discusses how to maximize CVap through labor savings, simple daily maintenance and shelf rearrangement, and he shares his favorite settings.

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Part Two: Reed Johnson- Smoke, Moisture and Crispness

Read all parts in this series: Part OnePart Three | Part Four

When chef Reed Johnson helped OLE Restaurant Group launch Red Barn Kitchen, he was already a skilled barbecuer. However, mastering that in a restaurant setting using CVap®s called for a different skillset 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.

Going from Artesano to Red Barn Kitchen saw your CVap options change from cook-and-hold units to large, multipurpose ovens. How did that change your cooking strategy?

I like to say that Red Barn is where I got the training wheels off and started playing around with CVap. The larger ones are powerful, 220 volts, and you can fill them and heat them up to 200 degrees in less than 90 minutes. The two CVaps at the restaurant where I am now, Wiltshire at the Speed, has 110-volt units. They work great but take a little more time to heat up. Another thing about the 220-volt units is you can put in and pull stuff out all night long and the atmosphere never changes. 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, it was 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-degree heat and then I’d dropped it down to 155 F for holding.

Talk about the increased volume and how you used CVap to adjust to that.

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.

Where did Reed Johnson start learning so much about CVap: online, networking with users, hands-on?

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 the late Barry Yates was helpful, too. He told me lots of different methods we could apply to what we were doing.

Which was what, exactly?

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 since 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 different CVap designs between top and bottom that create unique atmospheres.

Oh, and 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.

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

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, and when one got ordered, we’d get a perfect sear and cook on it and send it out quickly.

In our next blog with Reed, he details learning how to cook and hold for a wide variety of foods in CVap, and plate quickly for large parties of hundreds.

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Part One: Chef Reed Johnson: A Master Tinkerer of CVap®

CVap controller

Read all parts in this series: Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

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.

“I didn’t know how the cassette tape made the eyes move, so I took it apart,” says Johnson, chef at Wiltshire at the Speed, a café and events venue at the Speed Museum in Louisville, Ky. “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.

“She didn’t understand that I wanted the stereo inside, not the talking bear,” he says, “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.

“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,” Johnson says. “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, an all-new 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.

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

Chef Reed Johnson

Fed from the Ground and the Trees

Madisonville, Ky., Johnson’s birthplace, is a town of 19,000 in Western Kentucky where Johnson 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.

“My grandmother was a great cook, and I was fortunate that she and my grandfather lived next door,” he recalls. “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 on to 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, Ky. after high school. In four years, he earned culinary and business degrees and put down roots in Louisville. Working in multiple restaurants, he gobbled up each chef’s knowledge before moving along to the next to learn more.

“I’m always trying to find new ways of doing things,” he says. “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.”

In our next blog with Reed, he details several discoveries made while cooking at a barbecue-centric restaurant.

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