A slender aluminum stick with a gumball-sized whisk, sturdy bamboo cutting boards, and a quick-heating double boiler ... admittedly, these beloved tools were all impulse buys, though each quickly earned its place in my kitchen. But with each step in local stores such as Lit or the Williams-Sonoma outlet, I'm faced with a (usually shiny and chromed) decision: Buy it or leave with nothing but dreams of what might have been.
This ongoing dilemma got me thinking about what professional chefs would include on their own lists of favorite items. Perhaps I could de-clutter my own crowded kitchen while procuring a few of the tools they use every day. I might even deem my kitchen drawers and cabinets fully stocked and complete.
Not surprisingly, every chef I spoke to recommended that anyone who's serious about cooking must have a good sharp knife. This often-overlooked first step is key, according to Bryant Terry, native Memphian and author of Grub and Vegan Soul Kitchen. "I have two chef's knives: an 8-inch Japanese chef's knife and an 8-inch French chef's knife," he says. "I learned a long time ago that knives don't cut people. Dull knives cut people, mostly because they don't slice cleanly through food." He also suggests that home cooks "invest in a steel for daily sharpening and a stone for honing the blade when it gets dull."
John Bragg, chef/owner of Circa in downtown Memphis, agrees: "It doesn't matter what kind [of knife it is] as long as it feels comfortable and is razor-sharp."
Bragg also likes using a microplane grater for a variety of ingredients, such as hard cheeses, nutmeg, citrus zest, and unpeeled frozen ginger root. He advises having a thin, black, nonstick iron skillet (sans Teflon) on hand for searing meats and fish and making omelets and crepes. A chinois fine strainer, he says, "gives sauces a refined look, takes the lumps out of custard, and doubles as a sifter." Lastly, he has an affinity for the Silpat, a silicone nonstick baking-sheet liner, a must-have for durability and ease in dealing with sticky things like cookies, breads, and biscuits.
Blenders, whether a hand blender or the upright model, are also a chef favorite. These save room and may be used more often than a food processor, the absence of which will encourage us all to practice our knife skills.
Under those knives needs to be the right kind of cutting board. Terry keeps three: a thick wooden cutting board for vegetables; a smaller wooden cutting board for fruits; and a black plastic cutting board for seafood. Cross-contamination and transferal of flavors may result if cooks rely on only one cutting board for all foods. He adds, "Remember to 'season' your wooden cutting boards with oil after washing to prevent them from drying out and buckling."
Terry also sings the praises of two items that seem fairly innocuous but are excellent secret weapons: a salad spinner and a pepper mill. According to Terry, "A good-quality salad spinner is indispensable. If you don't dry your salad greens adequately after washing them, the clinging water will prevent the dressing from coating the leaves, and the flavor will be diluted."
Terry likes the flavor of freshly ground pepper and believes it makes a big difference in a finished dish. "Buying whole peppercorns and grinding them just before adding to a dish will ensure that you have the strongest flavors," he says. "Make sure you add pepper right at the end of cooking since it loses its flavor and aroma if cooked for too long."
Ken Lumpkin, chef/owner of Umai in Midtown, also includes many of the items mentioned by Terry and Bragg on his list of kitchen favorites — that perfect chef's knife, cutting boards (he prefers wood), and a cast-iron French skillet. Lumpkin also has a medium stainless-steel two-quart saucepan and a strainer/colander in regular rotation. For Asian dishes, Lumpkin uses a rice cooker, which doubles as a vegetable steamer, and a bamboo roller for sushi.
Many of the items Lumpkin mentions do double-duty, a bonus in any tight kitchen and a lesson that we all could take to heart when selecting our own new kitchen toys. He explains, "When I go shopping, I look for things that have multiple uses. Traditionally, Asian households did not have much room in the kitchen, and there was usually just one way to heat things." This less-is-more sensibility makes for a pared-down kitchen minus the frustration level inherent in super-crammed shelves and drawers.
All of this good advice led me to a revelation: So many of the things that these chefs find essential are plain, workaday items, not too expensive but nevertheless important.
As I scour the shops for my next killer tool, I know I'll still be attracted to madeline pans and tiny mise en place bowls, but I am determined to mend my ways. Now's a great time to go beyond buying impulsively in order to do something that's more beneficial in the long run: buying smart.