Was that CVapped? The chef toy that’s on fire

Kevin Nashan, chef-owner of Sidney Street Cafe, adores it. Farmhaus chef-owner Kevin Willmann saved for more than a year to buy his. The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park currently offers a course on how to use it, while even the most traditional toqued, double-breasted jacket-wearers across the nation are becoming converts. Yet, the rest of us don’t even know how to pronounce it.

CVAP (PRONOUNCED “SEE-VAP”), SHORT FOR CONTROLLED VAPOR TECHNOLOGY, looks like a cross between a bank safe and an oven. Although the most pioneering chefs in the country are clamoring to own this cutting-edge piece of kitchen equipment, created by Winston Shelton in the early 1980s, it was actually invented to aid the fast-food industry. With a conventional oven, moisture evaporates as food is heated, drying it out, but the CVap holding oven produces a humid, rain forest-like environment that surrounds the food with vapor, preventing it from losing or gaining any moisture. For a restaurant like KFC, an early owner of a CVap holding oven, chicken fried in the morning and then placed in the CVap stayed crisp and tasted the same no matter when it was served.

Serious barbecue joints – like Rudy’s in Austin, Texas and Dreamland in Birmingham, Ala. – adopted CVap holding ovens next, enabling the restaurants to keep their slow-smoked meat succulent all day. But it wasn’t until CVap maker Winston Industries developed cooking capabilities for the CVap, rather than simply holding food, that the myriad possibilities emerged for fine-dining kitchens.

In the early-to-mid 2000s, the CVap Cook & Hold caught fire in progressive restaurants such as Wylie Dufresne’s wd-50 and Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck. Since then, it has developed a near cult following among chefs with an eye for innovative kitchen toys. Considering that the CVap Cook & Hold model offers the ability to bake, braise, confit, dehydrate, ferment, poach, roast, sous vide and steam and then hold the food unchanged until needed, it’s no surprise that the CVap machine is a workhorse at local venues like Annie Gunn’s, Elaia, Little Country Gentleman, Farmhaus, The Libertine, MX Movies, Niche, Sidney Street Cafe and Tripel, with a handful of other restaurants having recently purchased or currently testing out this techno-wonder.

“Love CVap,” said Nashan, when asked about the sophisticated oven that has occupied a place at Sidney Street for the last four years. Nashan was one of the first in St. Louis to purchase a CVap and sing its praises to his peers. During mornings at the Benton Park restaurant, the CVap might be used to proof bread or ferment foods ranging from charcuterie to kimchee to sauerkraut to chiles. As the day goes on, sheet pans filled with meat may get cooked in the CVap sous vide-style at a low temperature.

“The CVap is just a whole different style of thinking,” explained Jake Sciales, kitchen manager at Farmhaus. “At home, you’re going to cook something, [so] you put it in the oven at 400 degrees. That’s not how the CVap works.” Instead, Sciales, Willmann and chef de cuisine Andrew Jennrich spent four months learning to control air and water vapor temperatures with the CVap before they felt confident enough to serve anything made with the machine.

“You can’t think about it conventionally,” said Willmann as he explained how the restaurant uses the CVap to make its popular porchetta steamed bun dish. “Essentially it’s a roast, but it’s such a wet roast it’s like a broast – a hybrid braised roast. It’s not like you’re braising because it’s not submerged in a flavored liquid. It’s not like you’re roasting because it’s not dry heat. There’s no transition of moisture from the food to the environment. So what’s happening is that moisture is staying in the product.”

Proteins are the most common foods seeing action in a CVap. At Prasino in St. Charles, executive chef Tony Marchetto’s St. Louis pork steak is prepared in the machine in a sous vide manner. To make stoofvlees, a Flemish-style beef stew offered at newly opened Tripel in Lafayette Square, chef Max Crask puts the meat in a CVap for 22 hours before braising it conventionally. At Annie Gunn’s, CVap neophyte Lou Rook is using his machine to slow roast corned beef in a pickle brine and to prepare salmon and halibut that come out “like butter.” And CVap maniac Josh Galliano of The Libertine uses his machine to put proteins on a pedestal with pig tails, chicken pâté, squid cracklins and octopus all getting time in the magic box.

Yet the cooking possibilities extend far beyond chicken, beef, pork and creatures of the sea. Restaurants are using the CVap for proofing and baking bread, preparing custards and canning. Tripel co-owner and bar manager Terry Oliver even sees the CVap’s potential behind the bar. Oliver is using it to sous vide watermelon rind to use as an edible cocktail garnish.

Beyond cooking experiments, quality control is a major reason restaurants gravitate toward the machine; chefs view the holding feature of the CVap to be just as important as its cooking ability. “Instead of having a sauce sitting in a steam table, it can be in a squeeze bottle held in an optimal temperature in a humid environment where it’s not going to deteriorate or continue to cook,” Willmann explained.

That desire to maintain a quality product for longer periods of time is exactly why local barbecue joints like Pappy’s, Bogart’s, Windowsills Cafe & Marketplace, Andre’s Ribs-Julie’s Way and PM BBQ have plunked down the money for a CVap holding cabinet. “We bring brisket and pork butt off the smoker in the morning,” said Paul Lamers, co-owner of PM BBQ and owner of two CVap 4000 series holding cabinets. “The technology allows us to hold those all day long. The quality is virtually identical [in] the morning [as] at 8 o’clock at night.”

The breadth of cooking techniques and an outstanding end product are key reasons why chefs are attracted to the CVap Cook & Hold, but this kitchen tool also makes business sense – despite the price tag, which hovers around a whopping $5,000.

“For a year and a half, we’d been drooling over the opportunities of this thing. It’s just a matter of being able to afford it,” said Willmann, who pulled the trigger on a purchase last fall. “We just kept socking away every couple hundred bucks that we could.”

A CVap is an expensive purchase for an independently owned restaurant like Farmhaus, but the return on investment is paying off. Cooking with the CVap results in less product loss, which translates into real dollar savings. For its porchetta, for example, the restaurant used to lose anywhere between 25 and 40 percent of the meat when cooked in a traditional oven. “You go to CVap and that can’t happen because the environment is so humid that moisture can’t leave.” Now the loss is less than 10 percent.

Willmann may be smiling about losing less precious product, but there are plenty of reasons we diners can grin alongside him. One win-win: expedited service, since a CVap enables restaurants to prepare a dish long before you place your order. That’s one reason why Three Kings Public House, which does 500 to 600 covers on a weekend, is considering the purchase of a CVap. “It can cut down on ticket times,” summed partner Ryan Pinkston.

In addition, a CVap means we can eat out beyond the walls of a restaurant. When Galliano consulted for MX Movies, he advised for installation of a CVap Cook & Hold since the theater’s kitchen doesn’t have a hood system, stovetop or fryer. With the CVap, we still get to nosh on shrimp tacos, pulled pork steamed buns and flatbreads while watching a summer blockbuster.

Cooking with a CVap is not without challenges. “It’s been a huge learning curve for us,” said Rook. His model arrived at Annie Gunn’s this spring, but he’s still tweaking his CVap technique with fries and honing its use to prepare roast beef for sale next door at The Market. “This is brand new technology for me,” he said. “I’ve always been super-conventional.”

“We’re babies here,” echoed Willmann. “We’re just kind of figuring it out, and we’ve had it for almost a year.” But Willmann and his crew are experienced enough that now, when they prepare dishes in conventional manners, they wonder whether the CVap might be a better route. Case in point: boiling pig skin for chicarrones. “We’ve gotta try to CVap the pig skins,” said Willmann.

In a period when CVap is being verbified, the controlled vapor craze doesn’t appear to be ending any time soon. Yet, is it destined to become the all-in-one machine that enables chefs to ditch their traditional appliances?

“We’re not throwing away our cast-iron pans,” replied Sciales.

“The CVap can’t be the end-all, be-all of cooking,” echoed Jennrich.

Their boss Willmann nodded assent, but added, “It’s a heck of another tool. It elevates what’s possible.”