HOME LIFE

Are Luxury Appliances Worth The Hefty Price-Tag?

One man’s epic tale of how the highly anticipated birthday gift of a Viking Professional range went from gastronomic glory to never-ending nightmare.

Photo: David Todd McCarty

We all have a vision of Vikings with their blonde hair and blue eyes, maybe a braided ponytail, a long beard, and a helmet with horns. They carry swords, wear fur, and travel on ships. When they come to your village, they destroy everything they don’t steal, before running off with your women. At least that’s the usual story.

Our Viking story was a little different. It came wrapped in cardboard and plastic wrap and arrived on the back of a truck. Frankly, it didn’t look like anything to be afraid of, as it looked like the pictures we’d seen in all the fancy home magazines and food blogs. A gleaming fixture worthy of admiration, awe, and maybe a tiny bit of envy. How was I to know that this gleaming box of steel would prove to be so evil, so without pity or shame, so destructive in ways so varied and devious?

Our Viking was, in fact, pure hubris, from its oversized knobs to its heavy metal grates. It belched fire and refused to cooperate, reducing chicken to smoldering ruins, or leaving it limp and inedible. Gooey brownies and undercooked pizzas were its hallmarks and one lone burner that did as it pleased. It arrived as a Goliath, a giant among lesser appliances, clad in steel, and boasting of soufflés won and pizzas charred. There I stood, clutching a cookbook, wondering, if I was indeed up to the challenge, and what would become of my dinner if I was to fail.

They say that hope springs eternal, and here on this first day of Spring, after a year of isolation were our only form of entertainment and enjoyment was sourdough bread and pumpkin muffins, I’m less hopeful than I once was. This is, in large part, because the most expensive thing in my house, by a magnitude of ten, and the heart of our kitchen, is a nearly useless pile of stained steel and cast iron that needed an electrician to install, but that can’t bake bread.

“The only good part of the Viking is the nameplate and the oven shelves — the only two things that are made properly.”

The list is fairly long (or short depending on your perspective) when it comes to well-known, showroom-worthy luxury appliances. Viking. Wolf. Sub-Zero. Miele. Thermador. Bosch. Bertazzoni. You will find these in a different section of the showroom, roped off from the GEs, Samsungs, Whirlpools, and LGs. Sure those companies claim to offer high-end, professional-grade appliances, but we all know that’s nothing more than a Camry pretending to be a Lexus.

These are brands that are entirely absent from the floor of your big box discount home store. These are luxury items for the well-heeled class. Specialty goods for discerning customers. Gourmet delicacies for those who see Fifth Avenue as a boulevard of unbroken dreams.

But unlike a Maserati, which is so far out of reach to all but a select few, a luxury kitchen appliance is one of those aspirational purchases seemingly available to a larger audience of people who actually know how to cook and are willing to invest in the best.

It’s not for the faint of heart mind you, as a simple stove can cost you upwards of $20,000. But they do offer more modest options, the entry-level starter-stoves so that even a relatively normal household can get a professional-quality stove for what others might spend on a decent used car.

We looked at a number of different options from Wolf and Thermador to Bertazzoni and Aga. I liked the Aga but it was so pricey and seemed nearly impossible to navigate. I naively assumed that anything at this level would be far superior to anything you could get at Sears, that whether or not they actually worked never even occurred to me. Surely, after sending $5,000 or more, you would get a stove capable of boiling water in record time and holding an oven temperature within a fraction of a degree. I upgraded to a dual-fuel model, a Series Five Viking Professional. This was a 30” model (we can’t fit anything larger in our 18th century home), with four, high-intensity burners, each one capable of an impressive 15,000 Btu’s of heat, and each with a variable simmer option for the lowest of flickering heat.

The oven was electric, as anyone who knows anything will tell you, is the best, most reliable and most efficient oven you can buy. The dual-fuel of gas top and electric oven is the creme de la creme of the cooking world, or so we were led to believe in all the literature.

Our previous stove, some nondescript white appliance that both my wife and I hated with a passion, had been all gas, so we were forced to have an electrician run a 220-watt line to accommodate the new oven. But this seemed like a small price to pay (though not that small) to have an oven that would practically do the cooking for us.

One of the features of this new convection oven was what they called their Rapid Ready™ Preheat System, where we were promised we would “wait less and cook more with the Rapid Ready™ Preheat System. Quick preheat means less time for the user to wait for the oven to be ready to cook in.”

I imagined us boiling water for pasta with ease and pre-heating our oven in record time. Everything would be better and faster and clearer and above it all, better looking.

After deciding on the Viking stove, we entirely gutted our kitchen and had a new built around our shiny new stove and dishwasher, both Viking. I drew the line at a true luxury refrigerator, but only because my wife cut me off, but ended up buying a stainless steel Samsung with all the bells and whistles. Despite what their website said, it was too big to fit into our doorways, even with the doors removed, and we had to return it and find one that was shallower in-depth just so we could get it in the house. It looks great but it can’t make enough ice to allow two people to enjoy a chilly beverage in the summer and occasionally freezes up and stops delivering water to your glass.

So, in addition to the $6,000 stove and another $1200 for the dishwasher, we spent a mere $15,000 on remodeling our kitchen, but only because we had friends do it, practically at cost and largely as a favor. Still, it was not an insignificant investment in our little 1725-era colonial.

We got soft-close drawers and cabinets. A large white farmhouse sink and butcher-block countertops. Tiled floor and backsplashes. New cabinets and storage. Our old ladder remained to hold the gleaming copper pots and pans and we space for our expensive knives, Kitchen-Aid stand mixer, and other well-worn gadgets.

From day one we had one burner that seemed to operate differently than the rest, even though part of the gimmick is that every burner was a 15k BTU high-intensity burner as well as a low simmer one. It wasn’t supposed to matter, but this one burner seemed to be out of control. It still is. Everyone tries to tell me that one burner is always higher, and that is true of stovetops with a larger high-performance burner another smaller simmer burner, but not this stove.

The first thing we noticed was that the door never seemed to be entirely closed. A quick Google search revealed that often Viking stoves had issues with their hinges needing to be replaced. We felt this must be a mistake since we had only just gotten the stove delivered and it was brand new. How could the hinges be shot? The second thing we noticed, which we associated with the first, was that the oven seemed to produce a lot more smoke and fumes than any oven we’d ever had. We did not have a range hood or vent, but we never had before either. It’s an old house, and we make sacrifices. This seemed a bit over the top.

But it became a real problem while cooking a turkey and realizing the little blue light was blinking for no apparent reason, and the temperate had dropped precariously to the point where it was no longer cooking the bird. We called the people we’d bought the stove from, who directed us to the manufacturer, who directed us to our local appliance repair service, the only one in the region authorized to work on this high-performance machine.

They came out numerous times, always with a cost of $120 or so just to show up, and related a number of possible solutions, but none that the company would pay for. They ranged from replacing the hinges to replacing either the thermostat or the entire motherboard, or both. One technician told us that he could replace one or the other but couldn’t be sure which one was causing the problem. To replace both was $700 and he wasn’t entirely sure that would solve the problem, but it was the best he could offer. He suggested using only one of the convection settings, and none of the other features. So this is what we’ve been doing for a few years now.

Even so, there were times when something wouldn’t cook properly because we’d determined that the oven wasn’t keeping temperature. In fact, once we added our own oven thermometer, we realized our oven wasn’t even remotely close most of the time. It was like cooking with a firebox where we just guessed and hoped for the best. It came down to an exercise in when in doubt, overcook it, or risk raw meat.

It’s finally failed to the point of not wanting to bother. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. So I determined to call Viking one more time, to see if they would, in fact, stand behind their product.

The woman I talked to could only see one instance of us calling back in 2017, even though my wife was at one point on a first-name basis with a customer service rep there. The person I talked to explained confidentially that had I been calling every year to complain, maybe there would be something they could do, but since I had let it go, there was nothing she could do. She begged off the phone to speak to a manager.

Have you ever seen the movie Fargo with William H. Macy? There is a scene where he’s trying to sell a useless tru-coat add-on to an angry couple. He tells them he has to ask his manager if he can make an exception, and then he goes and bullshits with a co-worker about a sporting event, before coming back and telling the couple that his manager said there was nothing they could do. That’s pretty much what I imagine happened here.

I explained that she should explain to her “manager” that I was going to make them pay, one way or another and that I was going to begin a campaign to shine a light on their poor engineering and abysmal customer service. I am a creative person, an award-winning designer, and an accomplished storyteller. I’ve made my clients millions of dollars with my unique set of skills, and I would now turn these skills towards tormenting them until I got some satisfaction. If that ended up them fixing my oven that would be great. If that meant damaging their brand on social media, so be it. Either way, I was going to get my pound of flesh.

I began posting to Twitter and Facebook, concentrating on the Viking brand, but I soon realized that Viking doesn’t own Viking anymore. It’s just one of the dozens of brands owned by a corporation cleverly named Middleby. Their CEO is Tim FitzGerald, and they’re headquartered in Elgin, Illinois. Surely if I reached out to them, they’d want to make this right and put this issue behind them. I began to tag them in posts as well.

Within 24 hours my phone rang and a representative from Middleby Corporate explained that they were under the impression I was unhappy with one of their products. They wanted to help me resolve the issue. I asked the woman if she wanted the short version or the long version and she said, “Lay it on me.”

So I proceeded to give her my story with full orchestration and five-part harmony, making sure remembered to mention the 27 eight by ten, glossy, color photographs with the circles and the arrows and the paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was.

She listened with an empathetic ear and kept apologizing. She explained that she was going to kick this up to management, and then she promised that she would be calling me back. If possible before the end of the day, but worst-case scenario, by the end of the week. Actually what she said was by Friday, which was yesterday.

I have to say their response surprised me. Instead of calling me back, which they never did, they blocked me on Twitter. I haven’t been blocked by a corporation before. I haven’t even ever been blocked by a politician and I’ve written many a politician giving them an unedited piece of my mind. I ridiculed the Viking and Middleby brands and they responded by blocking me.

Since then I’ve read a lot of unhappy reports online, many detailing the very problems we were having, both with the stove, as well as with getting the company to do anything about it. Consumer Reports has judged the Viking gas range a “Don’t Buy: Performance Problem” after wiring connectors melted on the two models they tested.

One of my favorite reviews read, “Viking is truly junk!!! My Viking oven and cooktop have caused much suffering at my house. The oven is ALWAYS broken. As soon as one thing is fixed something else breaks. The only good part of the Viking is the nameplate and the oven shelves — the only 2 things that are made properly.”

We are not professional cooking appliance reviewers and so have not had the opportunity to test multiple models of multiple brands to see how they compare. But we did spend an inordinate amount of money on a Viking Range, only to have their customer service tell us there was nothing to do. So we are spending another $700 in the hopes that it will resolve the problem. My obvious fear is that this won’t solve the problem and I could be out even more money.

The sunken cost fallacy seems apropos here. We’re this far in, so we have to keep spending money rather than admit we were taken for a ride by a large publicly-traded company for a considerable amount of money. We don’t have the deep pockets to sue them effectively, but we are in the process of bringing an official complaint through the state Attorney General of Illinois to see if we can get some satisfaction, but that’s a bit like pissing in the ocean for effect.

The moral of the story for us has been to be very wary of so-called professional-grade kitchen appliances, specifically anything that is sold in fancy showrooms for high-end homes. These are well-appointed luxury decorations for the well-meaning interior designer, mainly for people who wouldn’t know how to use the oven in the first place. There is nothing professional about the units themselves. An actual chef would never bother.

So buyer beware and steer clear of brands with names that conjure up images of violence and predatory practices, be they wolves or nordic hoards. We’re told GE still makes a solid stove. It’s not terribly sexy but neither is limp chicken.

We’re having pasta tonight since we know we can still boil water.

Writer, director, photographer and journalist with an interest in politics, humor and garden gnomes.

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