Caitlin M. O’Shaughnessy
Whether opening a new restaurant or looking to renovate a long-standing establishment, determining the best culinary tools and equipment for your professional kitchen can be an exciting, but daunting task. It’s clear that outstanding kitchen tools can’t compare to the skills of a talented chef, but having the right, quality cooking equipment and innovatively designed gadgets can make a world of difference in successfully preparing delicious and memorable restaurant meals.
While home cooks and professional chefs rely on many of the same techniques, stocking a restaurant kitchen with the right equipment to create outstanding dishes rapidly and in large quantities is a tough endeavor. At Magpie Café in Sacramento, Chef Ed Roehr cites a pasta machine as one of his favorite tools: “A good pasta machine is important. We bought a motorized Imperia because we knew it would hold up to the demands of making 50 portions a day. A hand crank like the one I have at home would just frustrate the cook prepping fresh pasta. Frustrated cooks equals inconsistent product.” Roehr is currently featuring a house-made fettuccine with manila clams, garlic, saffron, tarragon and tomato on his dinner menu and his Imperia has proven indispensable.
Aside from his pasta machine, Chef Roehr also cites the value of a good deep fryer; though the machine is often equated with fast food, Roehr explains the benefits saying, “We don’t use many deep-fried elements in our cuisine here at Magpie Cafe. However, there are so many things you can do with a deep fryer besides fries and wings. Small garnishes, chips, fried lemon slices and capers. Even if you don’t feature fried foods, sometimes just having the edgy item on a plate calls for one.”
At VINeleven in Napa, Chef Brian Whitmer agrees with the necessity of a deep fryer. “Currently on our menu is our Crispy Asparagus with Meyer Lemon Aioli, which is only made possible by frying in a deep fryer with canola oil.” Another favorite of Whitmer’s kitchen equipment is his wood-burning oven: “Far from serving as a great piece of equipment for cooking pizza, wood-burning ovens are great for fire-roasting whole fish, mussels, oysters, wild game and garden vegetables.”
Wood-burning grills are a popular choice as well; Chef Casey Lane at The Tasting Kitchen in Venice cites not only the convenience of Aztec grills “for running sauté baskets over” but also the fantastic flavors imbued by the use of hardwoods, fruitwoods and nutwoods.
Some professional tools transition easily to the home kitchen, like high quality pots and pans, but there remain many industry favorites that are practical only in a restaurant setting. Chef David Féau at The Royce restaurant at The Langham in Pasadena cites examples of these saying, “A steam oven and induction range are two important pieces in my kitchen, and for the style of food that I prepare; and a Thermomix is definitely an interesting tool, you can make any type of emulsion and sauce with this and it can cook and spin at the same time. For example, with this tool anyone could make a healthy béarnaise sauce. You can actually use less butter and obtain the same result because you cook the egg yolk, which leads to better emulsion.” Using a steam oven, Chef Féau has perfected the restaurant’s lobster dishes including a Tuscan olive oil-poached whole Maine lobster with carrots “crue-cuite” and coral vinaigrette.
Overrated gadgets vs. bang for your buck
After looking around a restaurant supply store, it seems that it would be possible to find a culinary device to solve almost any problem; but just because it’s been invented doesn’t mean it’s a useful addition to an already crowded kitchen! Chef Jamie West of The Stonehouse at San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara discusses utensils saying, “…the most overrated tools are probably some of the gadgets that are out there such as a corn shucker or avocado cutter, some of the specialty tools like that. I find it best to buy tools that have more than one single use. Other than things like whips and wooden spoons etc., but those are used for multiple purposes.”
In addition to more high tech accessories like a sturdy blender such as the Vitamix and a Cryovac, Chef West likes to keep it simple: “The most underrated tool that I like to use is a good 10” chef’s knife such as a Victronox or Forschner, both of which are priced at under $50. About 50 percent of my staff also uses the same knife. I use many of the same tools at home as I do at work…my knives are very important to me and I have the same three knives both at home and at work.” At Magpie Café, Sous Chef Kelly Hogge seconds the theory that a good knife is absolutely necessary: “If I had only one thing it would be a Japanese-made French knife. The thin, very hard steel makes precision knife work easy. I think I can do just about everything with just that if I had to.” But on the other hand, Magpie Café cook Tony Noce vehemently argues that “the most overrated thing in the kitchen is an expensive knife and the most underrated is a good sharpener, particularly for the home cook. A pricey knife looks good, but a sharp knife is priceless!”
Does brand matter?
Some chefs are happy simply to have the tools that they need, while others remain brand loyalists and aren’t content unless their kitchen is stocked with names they trust. Chef Jason Di Guilio, Executive Chef at Wild Goose in Tahoe Vista recognizes that “You really do get what you pay for when it comes to kitchen equipment that you need to perform and stand up to the daily abuse of a commercial kitchen.”
Chef Whitmer at VINeleven seconds this, saying, “You want to have maximum functionality in the kitchen and this is only possible with a wide variety of tools and equipment. Brand matters immensely, without it, the tools tend to be larger, more dangerous and break down more often. Brand is critical in kitchen purchases as reputable brands are more dependable and last significantly longer.”
At Payard Pâtisserie & Bistro in Las Vegas, having the right, trusted tools is essential for creating such beautifully crafted signature chocolates and pastries as the “Louvre” a cake with chocolate and hazelnut mousse with a hazelnut dacquoise and the “Vienne” a flaky sable with dark chocolate mousse, orange marmalade and a soft caramel center. Chef Adil Slassi acknowledges this, saying, “Most of the time when purchasing equipment, the things to consider are…the price, brand name recognition and standards that come with that brand name, durability, what will be the purpose and usage of the equipment, availability and easiness of usage. Brand name plays a very important part in the decision to purchase. At times it has been the difference of a few dollars, and if we know the name and like the brand, we will choose it over one that we have not heard of before.”
The most basic tools can make a huge difference in a commercial kitchen and pots and pans are one of the most undervalued contributors to a fantastic dining experience. As Chef David Féau has found, “I visit too many kitchens that are missing a good series of pots and pans! They are the most underrated piece of equipment.” Each chef has a favorite brand, but a repeated winner was the stainless steel pans made by All-Clad. Chef Brad Levy at San Francisco’s Firefly is a fan, saying, “Brand matters a great deal in a professional kitchen where equipment really takes a beating. We choose All-Clad pots and pans because they last 15 years no problem. I haven’t found anything that matches it.”
Another favorite among chefs is the Cryovac, which allows chefs a lot more flexibility in dividing up portions for later use and can be used for marinating and flavoring as well. Chef Slassi is an admirer: “We are able to break down quite a few items that come in bulk that we need but don’t use that often. We can break down these items into portions that we can use and save the rest for later. We can also break it down into portions, cutting down on our waste and this process also increases the shelf life of certain items. We use the Cryovac machine to marinate our Roasted Poussin, an oven-roasted Cornish hen with truffle leek pan jus. We clean the poussin from almost all the bones, place it in the bag with garlic, thyme and olive oil. We seal the bag using the machine. We then store the poussin in that manner until we are ready to use it. We open the bag, season with salt and pepper, and place the poussin in a hot sauté pan to get the skin crisp and golden brown. Finish in the oven, and serve.”
A kitchen equipped with reliable, time-tested and practical culinary tools provides the foundation for even the most adventuresome meals, but without a great chef’s vision and expertise, even the fanciest equipment won’t produce a remarkable meal. Chef Brad Levy of Firefly puts it best: “The greatest chefs in history did not have special culinary tools (or at least not ones that used technology). For me, the heart (and a little experience) is the best culinary tool there is and no technology or tool that can top it!”