My Favorite Gear May 2006

Merrill Shindler - May 2006

Big or small, plain or fancy, there are some things chefs can't cook without. Merrill Shindler goes into their kitchens to find out what they are, what makes them great, and who makes them.

In an age of mind-boggling technology—technology that includes such zeitgeist-shaking developments as a vending machine that dispenses freshly made French fries hot, crisp, and ready for the ketchup—it's amazing how many chefs still rely on simple, basic, utterly low-tech pieces of equipment. In the midst of molecular cooking by culinary iconoclasts like Wylie Dufresne (WD-50, New York City) and Heston Blumenthal (The Fat Duck, Bray, England) are chefs for whom the defining piece of kitchen equipment is nothing more complicated than…a spoon. Or a towel. Or a pair of tongs. Or, God bless, the perfect knife.

For despite the rise of ironic food, of dishes that are an edible punch line, it all boils down to a chef whose bunions ache, standing over a hot stove, trying to keep the pasta from turning from al dente to glue. We may be surrounded by signs of giant steps in technology, yet they're nothing next to tasting a spoonful of béarnaise and deciding it has a tad too much salt. And that sort of hands-on attitude pervades our periodic look at chefs' favorite cooking implements large and small. Much fascination has fixed on water baths that can maintain a temperature of 147 degrees for all eternity, but nothing will ever replace taste buds; they're the ultimate equipment, the most miraculous gear of all.

Ben Ford
Ford's Filling Station
Culver City, California
Ben Ford's new gastropub in suddenly trendy Culver City turned overnight into the restaurant of the moment, a destination for A-listers from the nearby Sony Studios and for neighbors amazed to find themselves suddenly at the center of massive property value appreciation. While arranging platters of salumi (from Armandino Batali's Salumi in Seattle) and hand-chopping his steak tartare, Ford looks about his kitchen, shrugs, and says, "My favorite equipment? I love it all. But what I can't live without would begin with my Doughpro oven. We do about 40 percent of our cooking in the Doughpro. It uses a combination of gas and oak wood, so it's perfect for pizzas, breads, meats—it's very versatile. And since it's floor-to-ceiling and visible from the whole restaurant, it looks terrific."

A wall of Jade ranges stands to the right of the Doughpro. "I love them, too," says Ford. "I've actually got three of them in a row, with six burners on each. The funny thing is, it wasn't what I ordered. But I love what they sent me; it's even better than what I had in mind. When you design a kitchen you start with the burners. And really, between the burners and the wood-burning oven, I've got everything."

Ford is also head over heels for his Silent Servant dumbwaiter, which connects the upstairs prep kitchen with the main kitchen, downstairs. "Everybody is fascinated by the dumbwaiter. It's like something out of another era. It's nothing but a box that goes up and down. But it's very odd to find one in L.A." And there's one more item, found in a side room in his prep kitchen. "This is the greatest machine ever," Ford says, pointing proudly at his Berkel vacuum packaging machine. "We can make anything in advance, then vacuum-pack it, and it stays fresh. We use it for catering. We put all our sauces in vacuum bags. We even use the machine to bind mozzarella. It's become as essential to me as a fork and spoon."

Mark Andelbradt
New York City
Those of us whose misspent youths were influenced by Toshiro Mifune epics at triple-feature grind houses certainly understand the importance of a blade to a samurai. But the obsessive love of a medieval Japanese warrior for his sword pales by comparison with the passion felt by Mark Andelbradt, Masaharu Morimoto's executive chef at the Iron Chef's freshly minted restaurant in Manhattan.

"We're very particular about what we use, so we use only Nenox knives from Japan," says Andelbradt. "You can buy their knives off the shelf, and they're very good knives, but thanks to chef Morimoto, we're lucky enough to have a personal relationship with Nenox. They make custom knives for us. From the feel of the handle to the metal used in the blade to the artistry of the knives, they make them exactly for our hands. It takes the connection a chef has with his knife to a whole new level. One of my favorites is a slicing knife made of high-carbon surgical steel, the same steel used in scalpels. It's very strong but very light and easy to sharpen. I have six knives from them. If I travel with chef Morimoto, I take a small selection, three or four, because they're so reliable."

Call it the Zen of the art of cutlery: "If you're not comfortable with your knives, you have accidents. If you're comfortable, they're an extension of your hand, of your arm. Here at Morimoto we have a simple rule: if you can't afford to replace a knife, don't pick it up. A custom-made knife can cost a few thousand dollars."

Frankly, the ingredients that Andelbradt slices with those knives should be honored—especially the food he prepares using his other favorite piece of kitchen gear, his MasterRange smokehouse. "It's a stand-up smoker with the capability of hot and cold smoking. It's also our duck smoker, and it can roast up to 500 degrees. You can hang the duck vertically, so the fat drips into the pan below, which adds to the flavor. We have a rotation schedule of when we roast and when we smoke, so we don't get salmon flavor on our duck, and we don't get duck flavor on our salmon. It's a smoker, it's a roaster. It's very versatile. And the cherry wood makes the kitchen smell wonderful."

Frank Falcinelli
Frankies 457 Spuntino
Brooklyn, New York
When Frank Falcinelli—the man with the food at the late-1990s New York City and Los Angeles hot spot Moomba—decided to open his spuntino (a very informal Italian eatery) in an old smithy on Court Street in Brooklyn with co-chef/co-owner Frankie Castronovo, he ran into a basic problem: how to cook for a restaurant full of hungry locals in a kitchen the size of a closet? He managed to answer that age-old question with a highly modern solution: he does his cooking with CookTek's line of induction cooktops, which generate huge amounts of heat but take up no more space than a telephone book.

"CookTek is the only brand that really holds up. I like them so much I'm using them in the next Frankies Spuntino, which is opening on the Lower East Side. CookTek totally stands behind its equipment. If they burn out, all I've got to do is call CookTek, give them the serial number, and they ship out a replacement within 24 hours. They send a new unit, and you send your unit back in the box. They're like 3,500 bucks, and they totally replace them, no questions asked.

"And they're really powerful. We use a 2,500-watt one and a 3,500-watt one. That's a lot of heat, with no exhaust, so it works in any space. And it works perfectly for us because so much of what we do is boil water for pasta and make sauces. It's great with liquids, brings everything up nice and slow. It's more precise than gas could ever be. The only thing is, electric costs more than gas. But it's a small price to pay for something that works right."

His induction cooktops may be ultra high-tech, but one of Falcinelli's other favorites is ultra low-tech. "It's an 1880s corkscrew that's the tool of choice for me. It's so simple, but it's very serious about opening a bottle of wine. It's made of real steel, from a time when people were proud of what they did. It's a corkscrew with a ring that it folds into, all handmade, and it never fails. There's no brand name. I found it in an antiques store. I thought it looked interesting. I keep it in my pocket. I don't let anybody use it but me."

Tony Priolo
Coco Pazzo
You talk to Tony Priolo, you get the feeling his restaurant has been around forever. Some of his favorite things are so old that they have no brand name on them anymore, and he's long since forgotten whether they ever did.

"We try to make food similar to Tuscany," Priolo says. "You travel through the countryside, you see all those little smoke stacks from the wood-burning ovens. That's what we're trying to re-create; we want the taste, the feel, the smell. I spent a lot of time cooking in Italy over an open flame like we can't do here. But at least we come close. We've got a wood-burning oven with a rotisserie. It's got a flat area where you can make pizzas."

"It's what they used to call a chimenea, but it's got no name since the label fell off a long time ago. It burns fruit wood and nut wood. To cook in it is an art, whether it's a pizza or a big steak. You've got to keep the food constantly moving, knowing where the right heat is. It's like playing an instrument: you get to know its moods, where to find everything."

Of course, not everything in his kitchen is nameless. He has a pair of Montague ranges. "Two really beautiful ones, the highest-quality ones. The good thing is they custom-built them for us, so I have three open flames and two double closed flames with ovens underneath. They do exactly what I need them to do: when you're busy, besides having a great flame and consistently high heat, there's no disruption in the flame. We can slide from one burner to the next without lifting the pan. There are lots of flames flying into the air, which is good when you have an open kitchen. It's a show."

There are two other items that Priolo can't imagine living without. "I need a Sharpie marker for writing tickets; nothing else works. And I've got to have my French knife. It's from my great-grand-uncle; he was also a butcher. It's a Wüsthof. There isn't a lot left: it was 12 inches at one time; now it's down to eight. I love it; it fits my hand perfectly. It must be a family thing."

William Bradley
Vu at the Scottsdale Hyatt Regency
Scottsdale, Arizona
William Bradley (who's heading for a new restaurant called Edison's this summer) has a simple philosophy: "Give me a damned good oven and a spoon; that's all I need, mate." For him, his "damned good oven" is a Rational combi-oven that gives him the ability to cook at any temperature. "You can cook sous-vide. It has so many cooking elements, it's crazy in its versatility. It's an oven only, but it fits my cooking [Kobe-style flatiron steak; rack of lamb with almonds and watercress] just right. I have two of them at Vu. I'll use them at my next project; no matter where I go, this is the oven for me."

Wherever he goes, he'll also have close at hand his other essential culinary item: "A spoon. A regular old plastic spoon, any color, it doesn't matter. But it has to be plastic. I use it for tasting as I cook. I use it constantly. You wouldn't use metal, because you want to throw them away. They have to be disposable."

Oh, and there's one other item Bradley would never go into a kitchen without. "My cooks, mate. I need them to get it all done. They're my favorite piece of heavy equipment."

Peter Ghione
Rio Hotel & Casino
Las Vegas
As an executive chef in Las Vegas, Peter Ghione doesn't think small. As he says, "I oversee all 14 restaurants and 18 kitchens at the Rio, along with the Carnival World Buffet and the Village Seafood Buffet—which is the only all-seafood buffet in Las Vegas."

And so it's not surprising that when the casino decided to cook burgers for the "playahs" at the Sports Book, Ghione did it like no one else in town. "We had a local company called Royal Metal Works custom-make a rotating griddle for us. We wanted something that was really impressive. And it is. It's five feet wide, with a blazing charcoal grill in the center, with a flame that's maybe five inches across and two feet high. You walk into the room, and you get the visual of this flame shooting high into the air. The grill spins at an adjustable speed, so you don't have to walk around the grill to cook the food; the food comes to you. It worked so well, we had them design portable units for the World Series of Poker. But the permanent one is in the Sports Book."

And what does he love that isn't big enough for one of Vegas's high-rollin' whales? "Easy," he replies. "My seven-inch Vollrath tongs. I couldn't imagine cooking without them. And towels. You can never have enough towels."

Although if there's one thing a Vegas hotel has lots of, it's towels. You can bet on it.

E. Michael Reidt
Santa Barbara, California
The problem for E. Michael Reidt was not in his kitchen (see "Old Flames," Food Arts, Jan­uary/February 2006, page 54), where he has his exuberant style of Brazilian cooking down pat. It was the equipment for off-premise demonstrations that bugged him. Then he discovered the portable Cadac Safari Chef. "It's a little portable grill that fits into a backpack," he says."It runs on propane and weighs less than 10 pounds. And there are so many cool things about it. The cover is shaped like an upside-down wok with a handle; you can stir-fry in it. When I do demos I can braise lamb shanks, sear tuna, and make French toast on it. It's got a flattop Teflon-coated griddle. It's an amazing portable kitchen, made in South Africa. I first saw it at a food event, and I had to have it. I also take it with me every time I go camping."

Back in his restaurant, Reidt can't live without his Cuisinart cordless hand blender. "It sits right next to my station. When we opened, we had a couple of hundred thousand dollars' worth of equipment. But I told my sous we can't open unless we have a Cuisinart. It's so flexible. I just have to make sure to charge it every day."

And on the low-tech edge: "There's also the spoon I use for plating dishes. I stir everything with that spoon. It's strange. It's not a special spoon, but it's the spoon I use for everything. It used to be tongs. But I worked for a chef who cured me of that. I used to take pans out of the oven using the tongs. He stopped me from doing that. It was a good trick, but it made a mess if you missed."