Do It Yourself: Why A Top Traverse City Chef Is Learning To Fix Ovens And Stoves
By Craig Manning | Feb. 3, 2023
It’s a busy summertime Saturday night at one of the top restaurants in Traverse City. The dining room is packed and the kitchen is revving at full speed. Then, out of nowhere, the stovetop sputters and goes out. Or the oven stops working. Or the refrigerator dies. Regardless of which piece of equipment breaks down, the result is the same: the restaurant grinds to a halt.
While much has been made about the numerous challenges facing restaurants these days – staffing shortages, skyrocketing ingredient costs, anxiety over the future of Michigan’s tip credit – the above scenario might just be a head chef’s worst nightmare. Restaurant kitchens can operate on skeleton crews or deal with ingredient shortages that demand menu tweaks, but getting by without a functional oven can be downright impossible. Indeed, without working equipment, restaurants often face a tough choice: either try to make do with what does work – sub in a grill for a stove, for instance, or rely on a smaller backup oven if the main one goes down – or close up shop until a repair tech can lend a hand.
Samuel Plamondon is choosing the third option.
Plamondon is the executive chef for The Boathouse Restaurant on Old Mission Peninsula. He is also currently an enrolled student at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC), working his way toward an associate’s degree in construction technology and HVAC-R (heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration). It’s a journey he decided to embark upon in the early months of the pandemic, when the future of fine dining seemed to be in doubt.
“Obviously, being in the restaurant business, a lot of us weren't sure what was going to happen,” Plamondon says of early-pandemic shutdowns. “But it was clear that restaurants couldn’t make much money during that time, especially a fine dining restaurant. And that means I wasn’t getting paid. There was unemployment, but I knew that couldn’t last forever. So, I was thinking, ‘Well, what’s out there?’ Because anytime there’s adversity, there’s opportunity. And at that time, there were, for restaurant folks, all kinds of grants and scholarships. And I realized that, while I didn’t necessarily want to change careers, I could get into something that would help me create an opportunity that’s going to help me survive.”
Plamondon turned his attention to commercial hot-side equipment repair – or the care, maintenance, and upkeep of ranges, overs, fryers, cooktops, and the like. “Having been cooking in this area for awhile, I knew that hot-side repair in northern Michigan was a problem,” he explains. “It’s always been really hard to find people who fix stoves and ovens. Refrigeration seems to be more or less covered: We could always reliably get someone out to The Boathouse to fix a fridge. But I started noticing that everybody who came up to fix the stove or oven or grill was getting up there in years, and I remember hearing that one of them even passed away. It really seemed like there was a big gap in qualified people who could do that type of work.”
The bad news? NMC didn’t have a program specifically dedicated to the niche of hot-side repair; in fact, Plamondon tells The Ticker that only a very small number of institutions in the United States even teach that type of specialty, and none of them are in Michigan. The good news? The college did have an HVAC-R program, which Plamondon figured was close enough to be applicable.
“HVAC is at least adjacent to hot-side repair,” he explains. “If you’re working on a furnace, for example, it's got a lot of the same componentry that a stove has. It's got a gas valve on it; it's probably got a pilot sensor; it's got a thermocouple. So I figured, if I go and study that, then it should provide insight into the hot side. And then I’ll also learn some of the HVAC and refrigeration stuff, which, while we don’t necessarily have a problem getting that stuff repaired, it still costs a lot of money. There’s still potential value to the restaurant for me to be able to diagnose an issue or make a small repair on the fly.”
Right now, Plamondon says, an equipment problem at The Boathouse can, at best, throw off the flow and productivity of the kitchen, affecting everything from speed of service to quality and presentation of food. At worst, equipment failures can leave the restaurant unable to operate for days or even weeks, triggering massive revenue losses in the process. Plamondon’s goal is to get his skillset to a point where he can serve as the “frontline defense” to stave off those losses.
“If a motor goes out on our main oven, between getting somebody out to diagnose the problem, order the parts, and then come back to do the repair, you’re already looking at 3-4 weeks,” Plamondon says. “Which is an excruciating amount of time, especially in the summer when business is so heavy. And then the other thing with COVID is that, right now, I can’t just buy a new oven and have it here in a week. I can buy it and have it here in six weeks, or eight weeks, or 12 weeks. And that’s the case with all commercial kitchen equipment.”
Once he finishes up his degree at NMC, Plamondon hopes to attend a short, intensive program at one of the dedicated hot-side repair schools to get some specific hands-on training. And in the longer term, he wants to share his skills and knowledge with other Boathouse employees – and even potentially start a local program or business aimed at teaching a similar skillset to other local restaurant workers. The need for that knowledge base, he says, is always going to be there.
“At a restaurant, our whole house of cards is built on this equipment, and most of us in the restaurant industry don’t know how it works or how to fix it,” Plamondon says. “That’s the situation we're in, and to me, that's pretty terrifying. You have these central, pivotal pieces of equipment, and if they go down, there’s not much we can do about it. Well, I want to be able to do something about it.”Comment