Every cook has a favorite kitchen tool, or two. Maybe it’s the perfect lemon reamer, a knife or a cleaver, or some basic gadget that’s been with the cook over the years and through many a kitchen. So, just for fun, we asked a few local food professionals, “What is the one home or restaurant kitchen item you can’t live without?”
As it turns out, almost every tool mentioned by these passionate cooks is a hand-held, or touchy-feely, kind of instrument. You won’t find an expensive food processor or electric knife among them. That’s probably because much of the pleasure of cooking is about the feel, texture and aroma of an ingredient, or of a dish like risotto, as it slowly transforms and comes together with the perfect pot and wooden spoon. Universally, good cooks love the heft and deftness of a sharp knife that glides through a plump fish or a tomato with equal ease; the smell of a clove of garlic when it’s smashed with a solid, heavy cleaver; the allure of citrus peel when a fine zester releases all of those essential, aromatic oils. No wonder we usually equate cooking with all that is sensual.
Barb Hill, chef and owner of Snake Creek Grill in Heber: “My favorite cooking item is at home with me. It’s the butcher block I got for a wedding present 22 years ago and it’s as solid as the day I received it. It’s moved to California and back. I would be lost without it. I use it every day. I have little gadgets here and there I really like at work, but after being in a kitchen for a living, it’s a joy to create meals here from the garden, on our days off, and when we do, it’s the one thing that is always in use.”
Tom Grant, chef at Salt Lake City’s Martine: “My favorites are 12-ounce squeeze bottles that cost $1 or less per bottle.” Grant fills the bottles with everything from raspberry coulis to balsamic reductions and aioli and then unleashes his creativity, drizzling and decorating appetizers, entrées and desserts, plate rims and all. At home, he said, “The bottles are ideal for making Mickey Mouse and other animal-shaped pancakes.”
At Park City’s Westgate Grill, chef Don McCradic swears by his chinois (pronounced sheen-WAH). That’s because he’s a sauce kind of guy and the chinois is the ultimate strainer—a cone-shaped metal gadget with a superfine mesh. It strains sauces and stocks to perfection. McCradic has one at work, one at home. His other fave is the mandoline. Basically, a mandoline is a manually operated super-slicer with adjustable blades. It’s about 10 inches tall, five or six inches wide, has a narrow, rectangular body in a wood or stainless steel frame and sits at a 45-degree angle with a little stand. You can adjust the razor-sharp blades to make see-through, paper-thin slices of firm vegetables, such as fennel or potatoes (for the perfect potato gratin), or to create waffle cuts or uniform matchstick slices.
Chef Todd Mark Miller of Fresco and Trio favors the mandoline as well. If you’ve been to either of his restaurants, you know that aromatic, crisp, shaved fennel appears frequently on both menus. Most of us would love an expensive French version of the essential mandoline, but the stainless-steel versions can be pricy. However, you can find cheaper versions in a plastic frames at various Asian stores, as well as cookware shops.
Tony Caputo of Caputo’s Deli: “It’s my giant, five-quart Calphalon pan. It’s about 15 years old, from a restaurant supply store. The pan is straight-sided, about 4 inches deep, and it’s perfect for risotto.”
Scott Blackerby, executive chef at Bambara, swears by his Peltex spatula. It’s a flat, wooden-handled metal spatula with open slats on its sturdy metal surface. According to Blackerby, “It’s light and flexible. I use it as a whisk, to turn fish, pancakes, eggs—you name it. I outfitted everyone in the kitchen with one. Indispensable.”
Dave Jones, chef and part owner of Log Haven, swears by his so-called “Samuri sushi knife. I bought it for $300, years ago, and I’ll probably have it for the rest of my life.”
Greg Neville, chef and owner of Lugano, carries his 10-year-old Henckels slicing knife with him for use at home and in the restaurant. “It’s long and slender, a great tool for everything—from slicing fish to vegetables. It’s starting to show some age, but it’s still razor-sharp.”
Clark Norris, long-time executive chef at Deer Valley Resort: “I use my mouth. It’s my most effective tool for keeping order in a restaurant kitchen. And of course, for tasting.” Second in line is his 10-inch chef’s knife, “For boning fish and just about everything else I do in the kitchen.”
Jonathan Perno at Metropolitan also lives by the knife. “My favorite, a carbon-steel Masahiro, started out at about seven-and-a-half inches. Now it’s about an inch shorter. It’s eight years old and is absolutely the one thing I can’t live without. When you know how to wield the front, middle and heel of the knife, there’s nothing you can’t do. I’m also fond of iron and All-Clad pots over anything else.”
And everyone, it seems, loves the Microplane. There are several versions of this narrow, sturdy grater/zester with a handle. It’s used for zesting citrus, grating everything from onions to garlic, and for grating whole nutmeg over your latte. Letty Flatt, pastry chef at Deer Valley Resort, ought to be the spokeswoman: “My favorite hand tool is definitely the Microplane zester. I buy them 24 at a time so all the bakers and cooks at Deer Valley and my family and friends have them. We zest hundreds of lemons, limes and oranges, and the yield and speed with those zesters is unmatched.
She also adds to her list of favorite tools, saying: “I have two great tools that I use to peel and core pears. To peel, I use a German swivel peeler. They are available in left and right-handed versions. And, I have a coring tool that is actually a hard-to-find pottery-trimming tool. One side is narrow, for the stem, and the other side is round, for the seed core. At home, I use it every time I eat an apple. It reminds me of my Dad, who always served our apples cored. Whenever I use one at work, someone wants to know where to get one.”
Finally, if you’ve read this far and you saw the delectable German film Mostly Martha, you probably got a cheap thrill from the extreme close-up of the other type of hand-held citrus zester. I know I did, as its tiny, sharp holes peeled off long, thin strips of lemon peel. It’s another must-have—a simple tool that gives you a sense of connection with the shape and aroma of lemons, limes and oranges. It’s all about that touchy-feely, aroma thing.