Favorite Gear: July/August 2014
Merrill Shindler - July/August 2014
What do chefs rely on when they’re in the weeds? Sometimes it’s a major appliance, and others it’s as simple as a spoon. Merrill Shindler surveys a sampling about their personal war horses, large and small.
We live in an age of PolyScience Immersion Circulators (so good for a little sous-vide), and Nathan Myhrvold–style anti-grills (perfect for turning a Wikipedia of ingredients into modernist sheets of ketchup). And yet, despite the fact that there is certainly a scattering of sci-fi tools among those chosen by the great chefs of America as their favorite kitchen gear, the overwhelming number of devices are classic, and even downright retro. Indeed, many of the favorites use no power except for the muscle of the person holding it. This could be called the Paleo Method of Cooking—toss it on a blaze and wait till it sizzles. Oh sure, electricity still matters. But not as much as you might think. Cooking is still about a man, a pan, a plan, and a garnish. Or a woman—though that doesn’t work as well with the iambic pentameter.
Chad Brauze, executive chef, Rotisserie Georgette, New York City
Large: French Enamel Rotisol Rotisserie
“I love my Rotisol! We have an eight spit model. Our topmost spit has been converted to spin vertically, using a Rotisol-branded attachment. We utilize the vertical system for everything from whole fish and lobsters to artichokes and pineapples. As for the horizontal spits, we have a whole kit of various implements to accommodate the many pigs, lambs, chickens, ducks, quail, and other meats that we roast on a daily basis. I find that a rotisserie is better than a grill or an oven because it allows for the great taste that comes from open flame cooking with virtually no flare-ups. The Rotisol models are especially nice because they allow adjustment of both the flame size and the distance that food spins from the flame. I’m constantly manipulating both to make sure that everything comes out how I want it.”
“My top choice is split between two different models, Messermeister Italian Poultry Shears and Helen Chen Kitchen Scissors. I use both on a daily basis. We break down about a hundred different fowl each day here at the rotisserie, so a strong pair of poultry shears is needed. Of all that I’ve tried, the Messermeisters have held up the best. For smaller, more delicate things, Helen Chen has perfected the scissors that her mother, Joyce, brought to market many years ago. The handles are flexible but strong, and the blades hold an edge for a long time. A close second would be my 89 cent Ateco Cake Tester. I used a cake tester for many years while training under Daniel Boulud and have had one on my person ever since. I use it constantly to test fish, meat, and vegetables for doneness.”
Charlie Ayers, chef/owner, Calafia Café and Calafia Market A-Go-Go, Palo Alto, California
Large: Wood Stone Pizza Oven
“Wood Stone Pizza Ovens are indispensable for my wide assortment of California pizzas—duck confit and pumpkin/hempseed pesto, Wolfgang’s pizza, guanciale/burrata pizza, Vegan Love Fest pizza, goat’s milk cheese/beet/California walnut pizza—and my roasted Brussels sprouts/potato pizza.”
Small: Mercer Knives
“But my favorite piece of kitchen equipment is my Mercer 10 Inch Renaissance Chef’s Knife. First of all, I must admit that I was a skeptic. The knife retails in the neighborhood of $43 to $55. From my experience, most quality forged knives in this class are over $100. After many years of cooking, bargain hunting, and buying kitchen toys, I have learned that, for the most part, you get what you pay for. I have knives in my collection that I have paid several hundred dollars for and others that were simply disposable. I’m exceedingly pleased to say that this Mercer knife is a huge value, and at this price point honestly a steal! I love that its bolster doesn’t have a wide heel. This will really help the inexperienced chef maintain and sharpen his knife. It also cuts down on the weight of wielding a 10 inch forged chef’s knife all day. It’s perfect for not only the student chef but also for the discerning well-seasoned professional. This knife is an awesome value.”
Craig Hopson, executive chef, Beautique, New York City
Large: Unox Combi Oven
“I love my Unox combi with a cook and hold duplex. We keep some meats and flans at a warm (holding) temperature during service, and we can program settings into the combi oven in order to cook braises and confits overnight, which come out perfect. You can also set it with a probe and cook to a specific internal temperature, which is really handy.”
“Here at Beautique, we have the full range of Waring products—blenders, food processor, et cetera. They all get a lot of use. I use the Waring food processor to make all sorts of things, including hummus from sunflower seeds, fennel, chickpeas, sesame, and mint. Every table gets a taste of this hummus with our seed bread at the start of their meal.”
Luigi Fineo, executive chef, RivaBella, West Hollywood, California
Large: HME Wireless Communication System
“This is a very large restaurant. Everyone gets a unit on their belt. It vibrates. That way I can call the manager, the bartender, or anyone else here. It’s not a speaker, it’s a buzzer, and has different vibrations for whomever I’m calling. They know to come as soon as they can. We have 12 in the front of the house, plus four managers—a lot of people to keep in touch with. There are 28 possible units on the system; we have room to grow if we need more people. I press the button, and everyone flies."
Small: Ateco Cake Tester
“Cake testers are very important. This is a big restaurant. It’s a long restaurant. Dishes can get cold going from the kitchen to the table. So, I take the cake tester, and I stick it in the plate of pasta to see how hot it is. I don’t want to use my fingers. For the meat, for the fish—that way I can see how hot a dish is. If it isn’t hot enough, I make sure it’s hot enough to send out. It’s just a little thing, metal with a flat plastic handle. It’s easy to lose them. I lose them all the time. It’s an amazing thing, and it costs nothing.”
Braden Wages, chef/owner, Malai Kitchen, Dallas
Large: Vietnamese Coconut Grater
“This is by far the coolest gadget in our kitchen. The only name is in Vietnamese. We use it to produce fresh coconut milk—making it in-house results in a better, fresher product with more flavor, and it doesn’t contain the thickeners and additives you’ll find in canned versions. We found it for sale at a street market in Ho Chi Minh City [formerly Saigon] on a recent trip. It’s a rotary grater that looks similar to a KitchenAid. But it’s upright and has a spiked nozzle that grinds the coconut meat. The process is simple: drain the coconut water, crack it open, grate (using the machine), soak grated coconut in hot water, and then press to release the milk from the shavings. It is labor intensive—we only net about half to one cup of milk per coconut. We use it for all our coconut-based curries—red, green, yellow, Massaman, and Chiang Mai, for tom kha gai [Thai chicken coconut soup] with chicken breast, galangal, shiitake mushrooms, scallions, and tomatoes, and for mango sticky rice with sweet coconut custard.”
Small: Mortar and Pestle
“Though it seems rudimentary, it’s the best way to release flavors and oils when making a paste. We’re committed to scratch preparation, and we make all of our curry pastes in-house. It’s also the most commonly used kitchen tool in Southeast Asia. We use it for all the curries, along with the goi du du [green papaya salad]—shredded papaya with candied bacon, ripe mango, chopped peanuts, and chile/lime dressing.”
Merrill Shindler is an editor of Los Angeles Zagat Survey, restaurant critic for the San Gabriel Valley Newspaper Group, and host of a weekly radio show on KABC-AM, Los Angeles.