Holiday Gift-Buying Guide for the Culinary Enthusiast in your Life
By Kelly Hartman
I’m going to take a short break from my current blog posts on the meaning of New American Food to write a little something more pertinent to the current season. While I know there are a thousand holiday gift guides out there written for culinary enthusiasts, most of them read more like the “Out this month” section of the Williams-Sonoma catalog than a real, meat and potatoes list of things that professional chefs use in their kitchen. (Incidentally, I mean no disrespect to retailers like Williams-Sonoma. They have some genuinely hard-to-find items on their shelves, and I’m thankful for that. If you can look past the silly, overpriced gadgets that promise to make your next dinner party guests think you’re hiding Grant Achatz in your kitchen, you can find some great things there).
Most of what I’m going to talk about can be found online, or at any of a number of culinary retail specialty shops. I prefer the smaller spots, like Kitchen Arts on Newbury or Gadgets in Jamaica Plain, as you can find some random treasures if you spend a few extra minutes. Of course, Amazon has most everything these days, but these days that’s more of a last resort for me.
Small kitchen utensils make great stocking-stuffers, and there are certain implements that are absolutely indispensible to do some things:
- Fish Spatulas are a must-have item to every chef in the world, and it’s one of the few things I still carry in my knife bag wherever I may go to cook. These are (usually) wooden-handled, (always) slotted, metal and offset. They make it possible to flip delicate items like fish, though I use mine for just about everything I put in a pan.
- Spoontulas – They come in a variety of sizes and shapes, but the basic principle is a combination between a spoon and a spatula. They have a wooden handle, and usually a brightly colored head. Invaluable for scraping, stirring, and plating. Things like mash potatoes don’t stick to them, as they do with metal spoons. That’s how we make our perfect quenelles.
- Kitchen Scissors. Believe it or not, a lot of chefs take their scissors as seriously as their knives, and it’s entirely possible to spend more than a few Benjamins on a good pair. My favorite is made by Joyce Chen, and has red plastic-coated handles. Those should set you back about 15-20 bucks, but they’ll hold an edge for a long time.
- Brine Pumps. This one’s huge, as it makes it possible to get that perfectly juicy and delicious chicken, pork roast, or turkey. They look like giant metal syringes, and usually come with a couple of different tips for different purposes. The cheap kind will hold up to weekly or monthly use for long enough, and shouldn’t cost more than twenty or thirty dollars. These are available through any meat curing specialty shop (Butcherandpacker.com and Sausagemaker.com are two great ones).
- Benreiner Mandolins. Forget the hundred and fifty dollar French Mandolins they sell at specialty stores. While they’re great for making potato gaufrettes, you’ll get a lot more use out of the plastic Benreiner mandolins they sell at Asian Markets, and you’ll only have to drop about twenty dollars to do so. These make the perfect matchsticks and paper-thin cuts you see in restaurants. We all have four or five of them in varying degrees of sharpness in our small wares bin.
If you want to spend a little more money, there’s a variety of routes you can go. As a general rule, stay away from things that seem more expensive than they should be (especially if they’re stainless steel and regardless of whether they are made in Italy or France by some company you’ve never heard of), or have any type of “automatic” or battery powered feature that makes it do more than it should (mechanical pasta makers or potato mashers are a great example), as they’ll probably soon break. I also try to avoid things that have too many attachments that make it useful for multiple tasks. The old rule of “if it sounds too good to be true…” definitely applies here. In restaurant kitchens, we have very heavy, often very expensive machines that do only one specific thing, and that’s just how it should be. Here are a few that are less than five hundred dollars.
- Vita prep makes the best blender known to man. This is how we get those perfectly smooth sauces and purees. The standard one will set you back about four to five hundred dollars, but you’ll never want or need another. If it can’t be pureed by Vita prep, it shouldn’t be pureed at all. Look for the best price you can find online for this, as I don’t know anywhere short of restaurant supplies that sell these.
- Along the same lines, a good Chinoise (and here is one exception to the “seems more expensive than it should” rule) is a true must-have for any home gourmet. This is a cone-shaped, mesh strainer with a handle. Don’t waste your money on anything that’s not stainless steel, or costs less than about a hundred dollars.
- All-Clad pans have been, and continue to be, the gold standard among chefs. Over the last fifteen years, thanks mainly to the bargain-hunting prowess of my Wife, I’ve slowly developed a fairly impressive collection of these. There are a number of places that these can be purchased. At full price, they can set you back quite a bit, but if you have the time and patience, you can often find them at post-department store outlets like Ross, Marshall’s, or Filene’s Basement for a fraction of the original price. (Pots that every cook should have include: one 12-in fry pan, a small nonstick egg pan, one two-quart sauce pot, and a good, twelve quart stock pot. I like to have a number of small, one quart saucepot for heating up small sauces as well.)
- Knives are at the heart of any chef’s collection of gadgets and whiz gigs. I don’t know a single chef who doesn’t have somewhat of a knife “fetish,” and it is often said that one gauge of the skill of a chef is the sharpness and quality of his or her knife. While some will claim that German steel is sufficient (and for some, it is), I have a particular love for Japanese blades, and I’m definitely not alone here. A Japanese knife of quality is something of a work of art, and hand forged steel is superior it’s machined or cast European or domestic counterpart by orders of magnitude. Unfortunately, this quality difference is definitely reflected in the price, so this probably isn’t something you’ll be buying to fill a stocking. While you can pick up a German-made Henkel’s or Woostholf chef’s knife for about eighty bucks, a good Japanese equivalent can set you back multiple times that. My favorite is Nenohi (the Western-style blades are called Nenox) If you’re interested, visit Korin.com. No collection of knives is complete without a chef’s knife, either 8 or 10 inches, a pairing (or petty) knife, and a slicing knife (usually 11-14 inches). Past that, serrated knifes are good for bread, and boning knives are fairly popular for cutting meats and poultry, though by no means necessary.
This list is, of course, in no way definitive, but it should give you some pointers from the point of view of somebody who cooks professionally and daily. While, obviously, fancy gadgets won’t turn a bad cook into a good one, it can certainly make things a lot easier in the kitchen, and in my opinion, it is next to impossible to achieve greatness in the craft without investing in well-made equipment. Happy holidays, and happy cooking!