By Keith BrannonI confess. I’m a sucker for a Viking range.
I can’t say the exact moment I fell for the stainless-steel object of my culinary desire, but I do know who’s to blame.
I point the figure squarely at television chef Ina Garten and her ilk at the Food Network who effortlessly sear, sauté and bake on appliances that look as refined as the dishes they create. Damn that Barefoot Contessa and her 60-inch, duel-fuel, eight-burner range! (With matching stainless-steel backsplash and hood. Flawless, Ina. Flawless.)
Basking in all its stainless-steel glory: The Viking Professional Dual Fuel Range with griddle and char-grill.
Now that I’m repairing my house in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I’m renovating the kitchen and replacing appliances. For the first time, I’m considering buying a professional-style range and weighing options for refrigerators, dishwashers and freezers. Like many with Viking dreams on a Kenmore budget, I’ve been comparing products for weeks trying to find out which is worth the premium price. Are professional-style ranges really any better?
The GE Monogram Dual-Fuel Professional Range with 4 burners and natural gas grill.
The choices are endless. There’s Viking, Wolf, Thermador, GE Monogram, Dacor, Jenn-Air, Aga and others. Most are similarly styled with similar features, but prices range from $4,000 to almost $10,000, depending on brand, size and configuration. What’s the difference between a 36-inch Wolf, six-burner range and a comparable Viking? The Wolf costs about $7,000, and the Viking is about $6,400. Does one cook any better than the other?
Wolf’s Dual Fuel Range with 4 burners, French top, and closed control panel. It’s also the brand with the shiny red knobs.
That’s hard to find out because most dealers handle a limited line of brands, either Viking or Wolf, and side-by-side cooking comparisons are almost impossible to find. Unbiased opinions are rare, even among the few dealers that carry multiple brands. Marchand Creative Kitchens in Metairie carries Wolf, Viking and Dacor, but appliance sales associate Beth Stierwalk demurs when asked to pick a favorite.
“They are all really comparable, it’s hard to pick one brand over the other, and I try not to,” she says. “It comes down to the preference of the consumer.”
Most dealers don’t want to tout one line over another for fear of alienating suppliers. Some customers get so perplexed that they select by knob choice—Viking’s austere black or Wolf’s flashier red. Sometimes it’s that basic, Stierwalk says.
Keith Boulet, an executive chef for a local catering company, had his mind set on a Viking until he started researching the market. He asked around, searched online and discovered that Viking has a higher repair service record compared with other appliances.
“I was drawn to them because of the brand name,” he says.
After his kitchen designer, who sells Wolf products, showed him different models, he was sold. Wolf is a subsidiary of the same company that makes Sub-Zero refrigerators.
“They took the whole stove apart for me and showed me that the fittings on the Wolf were much sturdier,” Boulet says.
Local cooking instructor Poppy Tooker has a Viking range at home and teaches in a fully outfitted Viking kitchen at Savvy Gourmet on Magazine Street. She had nothing but praise for the products. She says it’s the only piece of equipment she’s ever worked with where she can fry food on the stove and keep it crisp in the oven over time on a low setting. “And it’s my very favorite thing about my Viking range other than the burners,” she says.
Her oven did have to be serviced, but “there are highly trained technicians in the city who are qualified to work on Viking, so I haven’t had any problems.”
Those who like the professional look of the Viking, can opt for the slightly lower-priced GE Monogram or Jenn-Air models. However, most performance data is supplied only by the manufacturers.
I asked representatives for Viking, GE Monogram and Wolf whether they had any data showing whether their products outperformed competitors. Each touted their own features, such as broiling technology, burner output and fuel choices, but none offered any comparative analysis.
“We don’t like comparing ourselves to the competition. We like to let our features speak for themselves,” says Paul Leuthe, corporate marketing manager for Wolf/Sub-Zero in Madison, Wis.
What Consumer Reports Found Out
In August, Consumer Reports waded into the fray, testing a limited number of pro-style appliances against much lower-priced appliances. The data wasn’t kind.
They did a head-to-head comparison of a mainstream $800, GE range versus the company’s $5,000 Monogram range. They seared steaks, simmered a hollandaise sauce and roasted chicken. “The results were really very, very comparable,” says Celia Lehrman, Consumer Reports senior projects editor.
A less expensive GE range had comparable results to the GE Monogram, according to Consumer Reports.
In fact, a $550 gas Hotpoint scored higher than a $4,000 Viking, $5,200 Wolf and $5,800 Thermador in the magazine’s test regimen.
“So what you’re really paying for when you are buying that really expensive pro-style appliance is you’re paying for that look,” Lehrman says. “You’re really not getting a lot more performance … And the more tests we run, the more we find that same thing.”
That’s a message that doesn’t seem to be sinking in among luxury consumers. Viking and Sub-Zero tied for top place among the most prestigious appliance brands among consumers in a poll last year by the New York City-based Luxury Institute. And some realtors say that high-end homeowners can actually lose resale value by not including pro-style appliances in their kitchen renovation.
Even Tooker, a cooking expert, acknowledges that sometimes status trumps performance when it comes to professional-style appliances. “It’s kind of like having Hartmann luggage or a Louis Vuitton bag. It’s like the must-have accessory,” she says.
As for me, I’m still shopping for a range.
Writer Keith Brannon is still struggling to picture Ina Garten happily cooking with a Hotpoint range.