News & Politics

Birch & Barley Chefs Outfit Their Dream Kitchen

Husband-and-wife team Kyle Bailey and Tiffany MacIsaac put top-of-the-line appliances to the test—and tell us what they'd buy for their own cooking space

Chefs Tiffany MacIsaac and Kyle Bailey, who are married, try out appliances at Fretz, a test kitchen in Columbia. Photograph by Erik Uecke

Choosing appliances is a key step in remodeling a kitchen or building a new one. Should you go for practicality or looks? What might you splurge on–and where could you save money?

To answer these and other questions, we enlisted the help of husband-and-wife chefs Kyle Bailey and Tiffany MacIsaac. Bailey–Food & Wine readers’ pick for the best new chef in the Mid-Atlantic in 2011–is head toque at Birch & Barley in DC’s Logan Circle; MacIsaac is executive pastry chef at several restaurants in the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, including Birch & Barley and Buzz Bakery.

We gave the couple an imaginary budget of $35,000 each and took them to Fretz, an appliance showroom and test kitchen in Columbia that specializes in Sub-Zero and Wolf products–two favorite brands of home chefs. The large showroom has hundreds of items in 13 kitchens–from sleek spaces heavy on stainless steel to rustic decors with appliances tucked behind wood cabinetry. The appliances aren’t for sale, so you can browse or test them without pressure to buy.

Each chef brought a handful of ingredients–cookie and biscuit dough, brined pork loins, risotto–to try out with different cooktops, ovens, and gadgets such as steamers and warming drawers. Here’s a look at what they liked–and didn’t.

Ovens: Gas or Electric?

Bailey and MacIsaac went into the test kitchen leaning toward a gas oven. Most restaurants use gas ranges because of their durability and the lower cost of fuel, so both chefs had more experience with gas.

Beth Korwek, a consultant at Fretz, explained that one of the advantages of electric is that when you set it to convection bake, internal fans evenly distribute the heat. MacIsaac tested buttermilk biscuits in both. The batch pulled from the gas oven had browned on the bottom and was tough to pull apart, while the electric yielded toasty rounds that crumbled perfectly. She was sold.

Bailey was skeptical of all the flourishes on the electric–Wolf’s version has ten cooking modes, from roast to dehydrate–and preferred the no-frills gas oven, which didn’t even have a timer. But after roasting a pork loin in each, he discovered that the meat cooked faster in the electric. “The longer meat sits in the oven, the more it dries out,” he said. He ended up picking electric as well.

Choosing a Cooktop

There are three main categories of cooktops: gas, electric, and induction. Because most kitchens can be equipped to mix fuel types, you can pair an electric oven with a gas or induction cooktop.

Electric tops use coils to apply heat to a ceramic surface; they’re considered easy to clean and energy-efficient. In a gas cooktop, raised grates can trap food and grease and allow heat from flames to escape. But it takes much longer for an electric cooktop to heat up and cool down, and it can be difficult to cook simple dishes such as rice that require you to boil water and then quickly lower the temperature to a simmer.

Induction cooktops are just as easy to maintain as electric, and they conserve energy even better–a magnetic current directly heats the cookware, not the glass surface, so no energy is lost. A downside of induction is that it requires special cookware. If you’re trying to stay within a budget, this can make the already expensive induction cooktop even pricier.

Bailey and MacIsaac were drawn to the gas and induction cooktops because they allow you to apply heat at precise levels. Bailey made risotto on the induction, noting how quickly his water warmed and how cool the glass surface became when the pot was removed. Still, he preferred sweating over a flame: “With gas, you can find your perfect setting by sight and feel.”

Avid cooks also like the fact that gas stoves offer some unique options. One is a French top: a flat plate of heavy steel in the middle of the cooktop that’s placed on top of the flames. Burners are on either side. The French top’s 800-degree center allows for quick cooking. Bailey liked that he could fit multiple pans on the flat surface, which gets cooler as you move away from the center. “This is where it’s at,” said Bailey. “Feel the power on this thing!”

“It’s beautiful,” said MacIsaac, “but it’s redundant because it’s basically all hot burners.” Korwek noted that French tops have other drawbacks: They can take more than 30 minutes to prime and cool, and they’re hard for novices to gauge their exact temperature.

MacIsaac preferred a cooktop with a charbroiler, griddle, and burners. The charbroiler acts like a miniature gas grill that sears food on a grate and gives it a smoky flavor, while the griddle is a temperature-controlled flat surface similar to what you might see in a diner. Bailey was turned off by the potential messiness of the griddle–it can require a heavy slick of oil to prevent a burger from sticking–but MacIsaac liked the versatility of the setup.

Both chefs included in their budgets hoods with in-line blowers, which minimize smoke and odor.

Keeping Things Chilled

When it comes to storing perishables, there are more options than ever. Many of the choices are aesthetic–whether you want your wine chiller or refrigerator hidden inside cabinetry or on display for all to see. Other options are more practical, such as inserting fridge or freezer drawers in convenient spaces throughout the kitchen.

“This is so cool–no one has these,” said Bailey of a glass-doored refrigerator, a design that lets you see all the items inside. To complete the industrial-chic look, he picked freezer drawers with stainless-steel panels.

“It’s a nightmare–no way!” said MacIsaac, who liked the more discreet integrated fridge and freezer covered with cabinet-like wood panels.

One thing the couple agreed on was the need for wine storage. MacIsaac opted for one under-counter unit with both temperature and humidity control, while Bailey splurged with his make-believe money and went for two.

“This is perfect for making charcuterie,” he said, sticking his full arm inside. “Salami, a whole leg of prosciutto–the possibilities are endless.”

Fun Extras

While appliances such as stoves and cooktops are must-haves, extras such as a warming drawer or built-in steamer are less functional–but can be fun. Are they worth the money?

Bailey’s rule is that every appliance in the kitchen should have at least two purposes. MacIsaac discovered that the “proof” setting on the warming drawer–most commonly used for heating plates or keeping cooked food warm–sets the temperature at the perfect point for rising yeast in dough. “You could also do an ultra-slow braise by wrapping a beef brisket in plastic and letting it go for 36 hours,” added Bailey.

He quickly cooked green beans in the steamer and noted that the device could also be used to slow-cook meat by lowering the temperature and using aromatic stock in place of water.

Bailey decided to add the warming drawer to his list because of its versatility. MacIsaac wasn’t convinced by either of the gadgets and opted to leave them off her budget.

Two Experts Pick Appliances

Kyle Bailey and Tiffany MacIsaac were given an imaginary budget of $35,000 each to buy appliances. Bailey came in just under that amount, packing in such amenities as a warming drawer and wine storage and opting for lots of refrigeration and stainless-steel panels. MacIsaac preferred to keep the appliances in her dream kitchen simple, and she liked a softer look, with things designed to be hidden behind cabinetry. She came in nearly $10,000 under budget.

MacIsaac’s Picks:

•  Wolf 48-inch semi-sealed burner rangetop with charbroiler, griddle, and four burners: $4,550.

•  Wolf 30-inch double electric wall ovens: $6,865.

•  Wolf 48-inch professional-style wall hood: $2,045. Additional Wolf 1100 CFM in-line blower for use with hood: $795.

•  Wolf convection microwave: $775. Additional Wolf 30-inch trim kit for convection microwave: $440.

•  Sub-Zero 36-inch fully integrated refrigerator/freezer for use with wood panels: $7,190.

•  Sub-Zero 24-inch under-counter wine-storage unit with glass door and wood overlay: $2,860.

•  Asko dishwasher, fully integrated, for use with wood panel: $1,230.

Total: $26,750

Bailey’s Picks

•  Wolf 48-inch gas range with French top, four burners: $4,940.

•  Wolf 30-inch single electric wall oven: $4,635.

•  Wolf 48-inch professional-style chimney wall hood: $2,350. Additional Wolf duct cover and CFM in-line blower for use with hood: $1,285.

•  Wolf standard microwave: $550. Additional 30-inch trim kit for microwave: $395.

•  Wolf 30-inch warming drawer: $1,795. Additional Wolf stainless-steel front for warming drawer: $395.

•  Sub-Zero 36-inch refrigerator with glass door, in stainless: $7,020.

•  Sub-Zero 27-inch under-counter freezer drawers: $3,810. Additional Sub-Zero stainless panels for freezer drawers: $525.

•  Sub-Zero 24-inch under-counter wine storage unit with glass door, in stainless: $3,335.

•  Sub-Zero 24-inch under-counter beverage center with glass door, in stainless: $2,095.

•  Asko dishwasher, in stainless: $1,445.

Total: $34,575

This article appears in the October 2011 issue of The Washingtonian. 

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.