My Favorite Gear April 2005

Merrill Shindler - April 2005

What makes chefs go weak in the knees? Why, it's gadgets that make them strong in the kitchen. Merrill Shindler reveals dreams come true.

Orson Welles once described a Hollywood studio as "the biggest train set a boy ever had." For many chefs, a kitchen filled with gadgets is pretty much like that—a room with toys that foster creativity and at the same time make life there a bit easier and a lot more efficient.

The kitchen devices that chefs dream about—their culinary objects of desire—tend to range from the absurdly simple to the strangely arcane and the extremely upscale. But in every case, they answer a need. Chefs do not, as a rule, take up valuable real estate in their kitchens with gimmicks that are cute but irrelevant. (A case in point is the Wienerizer I've got in a drawer in my kitchen; it scores hot dogs. If you need a machine to make score marks on hot dogs, you should be doing all your eating at places where they ask, "And would you like fries with that")?

One thing I've noticed is that when chefs talk about their toys, they light up like walking pinball machines. When you spend your life in a kitchen, you want to be surrounded by the right things. And when those things do their job exceedingly well, they bring joy.

Rick Moonen
RM Seafood
Mandalay Bay Resort Las Vegas
In the wake of his success first at Oceana and then at RM in New York City, Rick Moonen (above) headed for Las Vegas to build his dream restaurant, RM Seafood, in the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. Actually, it's a pair of restaurants—R Bar Cafe, a casual room downstairs, and Restaurant RM, a serious room upstairs. He knows the world of upscale seafood well; he has built his reputation on it. But in the space downstairs he wanted to head forward into the past, which encompasses the wonderful world of New England biscuits, slathered with cream sauces so rich you could stand a spoon in them with ease.

"My idea was to build a biscuit bar," says Moonen. "I love biscuits; they're the essence of American cooking. But it's hard to find good biscuits, because they've got to be absolutely fresh from the oven to be any good. And so I came up with the idea of making the biscuits right at the bar."

In order to be able to do that, Moonen decided to use a trio of Sodir by Equipex countertop convection ovens—multilevel, shining stainless-steel cabinets that look a lot like toaster ovens on steroids and reach a sizzling 480°F in no time flat. "The great thing about these ovens," says Moonen, "is that, because the front is glass, you can see the biscuits cooking. And the aroma wafts throughout the whole restaurant. As soon as people catch a whiff of the biscuits, they've got to have them. Biscuits, cream gravy, and seafood from the raw bar—you can't go wrong with a combination like that."

Neal Fraser
Grace
Los Angeles
Neal Fraser had encountered a problem at Grace. He's into sous-vide, particularly for meats, but found it difficult at best to maintain water at a precise temperature as it bubbled around food packed in vacuum-sealed plastic bags. Then he discovered the PolyScience immersion circulator, model 7306, which sounds like something you'd find in a college science laboratory. Indeed, it is something you'll find in a lab. But as Fraser learned, it also works very well in his kitchen, especially for the meats that he cooks sous-vide.

"I encountered it on a trip to San Sebastián in Spain, where they made a beef dish they cooked for 35 hours," says Fraser. "I tried it when I got home, and it just didn't work as well; the Spaniards' stoves were old, but they kept the temperature steady for a long time. Then I read an interview with Wylie Dufresne [WD-50, New York City] in which he mentioned using a re-circulator. A new unit costs about $1,400, but I found a used one on eBay for $98. It's perfect."

The contraption also gives one corner of his kitchen the look of a college chemistry lab. The unit consists of a shoe box–size pump with tubes that suck in water, heat it, and then gently pump it back into the bath, for which Fraser uses a six-inch-deep hotel pan. "All it does is keep the water heated and moving at a specific temperature that never seems to vary. There's no way I could be this precise if I were trying to heat the water bath over a burner."

Fraser says the amazing thing about the re-circulator is that it can be adjusted by half a degree. "And it stays at that temperature for as long as you keep it on. I can keep the liquid cooking at 140 degrees forever." Like most chefs, he's had fun playing with it. "I cooked some lamb chops marinated in mustard, olive oil, and garlic. Just before I served them, I put them on the grill. They were perfect." Not so perfect were the lamb necks. "After the first day, they were still raw. After the second day, they still weren't ready. After the third day, they had turned to rubber. Most meats cook well, but not all."

Laurent Pillard
Fleur de Lys
Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino Las Vegas
Laurent Pillard spent many years cooking in Paris, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, at the highly esteemed Lucas-Carton. These days, he still does his cooking in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, only now it towers over the Paris Casino & Resort on the Strip in Las Vegas, within sight of Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, where Pillard cooks at Hubert Keller's Fleur de Lys, the local outpost of the San Francisco French restaurant. Pillard works in a gleaming space of stainless steel and pinkish granite designed by Mark Stech-Novak, a kitchen that became even more ideal when Pillard decided to deal with a problem that had long vexed him: how to keep an eye on what's being done and when. In full-service battle, it was easy to forget when a particular piece of Alaska king salmon had been fired, whether the filet mignon had begun to cook, and, very important, the status of the soufflés: "We cook so many of them, and the timing must be exact."

The solution lay in installing three Prince Castle Merlin II multi-channel timers at different points in the kitchen, two of them with the ability to track eight dishes, the third with four-dish capacity. When the cooks start a dish that's particularly time-sensitive, they punch one of the unused channels, set the time, and watch as the digital readout counts down the time remaining. If they become distracted by another dish, the timers emit a warble unexpectedly similar to the sound the siren of a police car makes when plunging through the streets of Paris. "It's a funny coincidence," says Pillard. "It makes me feel right at home. And when several of the alarms go off? It's rush hour on the Champs-Élysées."

David Kinch
Manresa
Los Gatos, California
David Kinch Manresa Los Gatos, California Clearly, the gadget of the moment is anything that allows a chef to cook sous-vide. For David Kinch, that gadget is a Boekel Industries water bath, which he acquired from the biology department at nearby Stanford University. "It creates a steady, controlled environment for growing cultures at exact temperatures, but it's also great for sous-vide cooking."

To make sure that the temperature is steady, Kinch uses thermometer redundancy. "We've got temperature probes in the water as a double check, so that when I set something at 155 degrees, it has to stay at 155 degrees." His favorite dish cooked in the water bath is whole lamb shoulder, which he lets cook for more than one day but less than two. "I prefer to be vague about the time and temperature," says Kinch. "It took a lot of experimenting to get it exactly right." And what better gadget for experimentation than something from your friendly neighborhood biology department?

Rose Levy Beranbaum
The Cake Bible, The Bread Bible, The Pie and Pastry Bible
Food Arts contributing editor Rose Levy Beranbaum has been called "a kitchen chemist extraordinaire." She is, after all, a woman who wrote her master's thesis on the effects of sifting on the quality of yellow cake. And as befits a baker who believes firmly that inaccurate measurements make for an imperfect product, the scale she uses measures ounces down to the last molecule of flour. A Rose Levy Beranbaum ounce is exactly an ounce; only the Bureau of Standards has ounces that are more precise.

To make her measurements, she uses the Mettler Toledo SB16001 scale. "It's what I rely on for recipe testing and production," she says. "Its accuracy to within 0.1 gram makes it possible to weigh minute amounts such as a teaspoon of baking powder, and its 35 pound [16,000 gram] capacity makes it equally possible to accurately weigh ingredients in one bowl for a multitiered wedding cake. It switches readily from ounces to grams."

Although it's certainly an exquisite piece of equipment, the sort of device that scientists might refer to as "elegant," it's not for everyone. It's described by the manufacturer as "designed for weighing in laboratory or industrial environments…with a full metal housing and a high chemical resistance [with a] state-of-the-art MonoBloc weighing cell [that offers] permanent shock and overload protection." In other words, if you want Platonic cakes, it's an object of desire; if you're making muffins for breakfast, it may be a bit much.

Adrienne Odom
Solera
Minneapolis
In this instance, we have an object of unrequited desire. When pastry chef Adrienne Odom moved from Aquavit, in New York City, to Solera, in Minneapolis, she wanted an ice cream maker. She yearned for a Carpigiani. "You can't get it serviced in the Midwest," though, she says. "If it broke down, I could never get it working again. So, I got another brand. It does a good job, but it's not a Carpigiani. I first started making ice cream on a Carpigiani. It works quickly, and Italians know how to make ice cream. Maybe someday."

In the meantime, she's been able to find at least passing happiness with her current ice cream maker, which she uses to produce flavors like chocolate/torrone. "Solera is a Spanish restaurant," she says. "We make Spanish-style ice creams with lots of fresh fruit and yogurt mixes. I've learned to work with what I have, but I've been spoiled; I know how good it could be with the right machine."

James Boyce Studio
Montage Resort & Spa
Laguna Beach, California
In his years at some of America's most boldface restaurants—Le Cirque (New York City), Mary Elaine's at the Phoenician (Scottsdale, AZ), and now Studio at the Montage Resort & Spa—James Boyce has developed a high regard for both the top end of kitchen gear and more modest gadgets as well. He's surrounded himself with some of each at Montage. At the high end, he cooks on one of the first Molteni ranges imported into the United States, which he characterizes as "the Rolls-Royce of kitchen equipment." He points out, "It has every cooking element in a central location. Barely any movement is required to cook on it. And if it needs service, the service is smooth and flawless." He recently placed a smaller Molteni, a four-burner with a flattop, against a back wall. "I use it for the chef's table menu. It gives us extra depth in the kitchen. It's good for smaller kitchens that can't hold the full Molteni suite. You get Molteni quality without having to remodel the whole kitchen."

At a much lower price point, he adores his Atlas Grecian handcrafted grinders, which are in constant use in his kitchen. "We use our handheld grinders for a variety of spices. They're portable and fast. They're hand-powered, just like an old-fashioned peppermill—no electricity—and so my arm doesn't get tired. They're also very easy to clean: just empty them and wash them out. We use them for only one spice per evening. You rinse them and dry them, and the smells are all gone. And it's more health-conscious to use freshly ground spices to flavor a dish than to add fat." For the denizens of the OC (Orange County), home to Montage, that isn't just a way of cooking; it's a way of life.