In downtown Toronto, a few minutes' walk east of Bay and King, a jocular chef dressed in grey wool trousers, a crisply pressed shirt, a silk bow tie faintly dusted with flour, and a navy apron, is preparing a feast. In fact, over the course of the few hours I will sit at a harvest table conversing with John Bowerman-Davies, he will make three entire meals just for me: breakfast (pancakes, bacon and eggs sunny side up); lunch (pepperoni pizza); and dinner (grilled porterhouse and a stuffed whole chicken sided with veggies and rice, followed by peach cobbler).
Here's the best part: in a neighbourhood where the Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar can set you back $180 on a dinner for two, I'm getting all three meals for absolutely nothing. Here's the even better part: you can follow in my well-fed footsteps, and even bring along several hungry friends. OK, so here's the catch: Bowerman-Davies is hoping you'll follow dessert with the purchase of the two-hot-plate, four-chamber, cast-iron British-made Aga stove on and in which he's been preparing his spread.
What's more, he knows there's a decent chance, if you've come this far, that you'll do just that. In an era in which Nigella, Jamie and their ilk are whipping up not just flawless soufflés but inner gourmets everywhere, and jaw-dropping kitchens are often the opulent anchors of high-end home renos, more and more people are investing big bucks in what Bowerman-Davies calls, in a bit of understatement that nicely complements his clipped British accent, “a good cooker.” In the case of the classic Aga, say, something in the neighbourhood of $25,000.
And according to Tanya Steel, editor of Epicurious.com, the online home of Gourmet and Bon Appétit magazines, it's guys who are leading the home-chef charge. “The more heavy-duty and the more deluxe and the more BTUs, the more men are happy to pay tens of thousands of dollars for the right stove,” says Steel. “It's become a bit like, 'Yeah, I may have a Porsche in the driveway, but did you know I have an Aga in the kitchen?'”
Of course, following through and using their hot new properties can be another matter entirely. Although a high-anxiety world has propelled legions of overstressed overachievers to turn to cooking “as the ultimate comfort pastime,” Steel hastens to add that people who can afford the best ovens often don't actually cook much. “Like any status symbol,” she says, “a fabulous stove can be more something to look at and show off than to use. But that's important, too.”
Whether it's more for boasting or basting, your first decision involves the cooking look you're after. Broadly, the best ranges divide into two groups: heavy, handsome Merchant Ivory-looking models; and minimalist, ultra-sleek numbers. In the first camp are the acknowledged kings of the classic kitchen: La Cornue, Diva de Provence and Aga (whose Toronto outlet, its first in Canada, opened in December, to be followed by stores in Vancouver and Montreal later this year).
Those who like their ranges as rare as a blue steak will be naturally drawn to La Cornue, which produces a mere 1,000 or so each year (about 400 for North American kitchens) at its 98-year-old foundry in Saint Ouen l'Aumône, France. Whether metal-clad or custom enamel-coated (you come up with the colour, they'll create it), La Cornue ovens use natural convection–no blow-dryer-like fans here–that allows heat to rise from below the oven floor through wall vents into the cooking chamber, where it billows up to a vaulted ceiling, from whence it then cascades downward. The result, promises Anne Murray, director of La Cornue sales in North America, is a loss of only about 6% to 8% of a meal's moisture, compared with 16% to 18% in a standard modern oven.
The La Cornue stovetop, meanwhile, is dominated by an 18-inch-square cast-iron plate–known as a French top–composed of concentric rings of progressively mild heat. La Cornue cooks must learn to “play the pots,” shuffling them (with room for up to eight at a time) around the French top. When making a risotto, for instance, you don't constantly adjust a single burner, but rather shift the pot's location to the appropriate heat. Additional gas or electric burners and a grilled barbecue rack can complete the cooktop to your specifications. A dual-oven model with an all-copper body tops out at about US$48,000.
All very nice, but lacking one little bit of cachet: La Cornues aren't generally used in restaurants. For bragging rights to a stove that is, your most solid bet is La Cornue compatriot Diva de Provence, made in Marseilles. Also boasting a French top, Divas have found homes in the kitchens of, among others, the Courtyard Café of Toronto's Windsor Arms Hotel and the Mission Hill winery in B.C.'s Okanagan Valley. One other glistering extra that comes with Divas: they can be trimmed in gold. The company's Island model, with three ovens, eight stovetop components, warming cabinets, a work-prep area and bottle storage, will run you $65,000.
Coming slightly down to earth, the less-than-half-that Aga (three meals included) might appear a tad more palatable to those without unlimited budgets. Designed by Swedish Nobel Prize-winning physicist Gustaf Dalén, and produced since 1932 in the central English town of Coalbrookdale, Shropshire, classic Agas are distinguished by the fact that you never turn them off. That might sound wastefully odd, but is of course identical to how such convenient appliances as fridges and water heaters operate; what's more, the Aga's insulated cast-iron body means that it nonetheless consumes about the same year-round energy as a more traditional range.
Fuelled by a single internal burner, the ovens in the Aga's four-chamber model, heated by a series of ducts, is each assigned a continuous task: One simmers, one warms, one roasts, one bakes. On the stovetop, a boiling plate (at 800¡F) and a simmering plate (at 450¡F), topped by hinged stainless-steel covers, as well as a warming plate, complete the package. With enough practice, and myriad oven racks to allow chamber sharing, you can cook, as did Bowerman-Davies, all the components of a truly commodious banquet simultaneously (and, for what it's worth, without ever touching a dial).
All a bit too Victorian? If so, about as far away from Howards End as one could imagine is a bevy of new high-end ovens that combine chic form with near-futuristic functions. This spring, Atlanta-based TurboChef, which already supplies “speed-cook” ovens to the Subway sandwich chain, is rolling out its first-ever ultrafast model for the rest of us. A hybrid of microwave and traditional convection technology, the stainless steel US$7,000 home TurboChef promises to deliver a seven-ounce medium-rare filet mignon in five minutes, an eight-ounce soufflé in two, and a 12-pound turkey in 42 minutes flat. Keep an eye on the company's eponymous website for news on its Canadian debut.
Not nearly as fast, but packing convenience of a decidedly cool kind, is Cleveland-based TMIO's Intelligent Oven, or Io. Available in Canada later this year and exclusively at Integrated Appliances of Toronto, the $12,000 Io is an oven and a fridge. Put tonight's dinner in the refrigerated Io before heading to work or the club (or Paris). When you're ready to start cooking, just convert the Io from fridge to an oven using your phone or computer. Get stuck in transit? No problem. Switch the Io, with dinner cooked, back to a fridge. Your dish is its command. Also cool: the Io gives you a second refrigerator for times, say, that that pitcher of margaritas needs frosting but your main fridge is full.
Eschewing convection altogether, German chicmeister Miele also offers a mod variation on conventional cooking with its $3,200 stainless-steel, steam-powered oven. About the size of an average microwave unit, and recommended as an adjunct to your main range, it's aimed at health-conscious eaters heavily into fish and vegetables (not to mention mussels, custards and dumplings).
Rather than baking or broiling–a process whose forced, dry heat generally requires oils or butter to keep things juicy–the Miele surrounds your food, securely covered in air-tight pans, with high-powered steam. Computerized options let you set cooking time and temperature for 900 different dishes, from al dente baby carrots to rare salmon and pot au feu.
What the Miele is not made for is fire-loving staples like pizza and steak. For those, you might want to consider harking back to an era when the man of the house (or maybe the cave) gathered wood to roast the day's kill. Made in Glendale, Calif., EarthStone wood-fired ovens are perfect for roasting everything from duck to lamb chops to rosemary potatoes, and can also bake a mean loaf of bread.
Sold as pre-assembled units for about $8,000–budget an extra $1,000 for Canadian delivery–they are generally finished with brick, steel or copper cladding, for which you'll want to set aside at least a couple grand more. Maxing out at a temperature of about 1,600¡F, the EarthStone can barbecue a rib-eye steak, perched on a grill insert, in about six minutes, after which you can pull the embers to the front of the oven and enjoy it as a fireplace.
You can bask as well in the good company you'll be keeping. Not only do Nicolas Cage, Céline Dion, Peter Nygard and Steve Jobs all have EarthStones. So do corporate cafeterias at Apple, Pfizer, Morgan Stanley and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Presumably it's all part of the ongoing challenge of warming the cockles of employees' hearts–and no doubt getting them to sing the braises of head office to potential recruits.