... it's easy to do, just follow these steps.
Being officially chest-deep in the holiday season, I thought I would share some of the things that make my life as a cook easier. The idea started many months ago as a self-help guide for uninitiated cooks, but it's so close to Christmas that it seems appropriate as a gift guide for friends and family of aspiring chefs. It's both, really. Call it what you want--there's a lot of unnecessary junk out there that's marketed to cooks who want professional kitchen experience but don't know exactly what goes on in the daily life of a kitchen monkey. I would know; I have lots of extraneous tools I amassed over the years, currently filling storage boxes and drawers in three different cities. There's also stuff out there that's might be good for the home cook but is completely impractical in restaurant kitchen cooking. Bagel slicer, anyone? Egg separator? Garlic press with built-in cleaning device?
I'm also including a short list of items that are specific to women, as there's not much info out there for us kitchen chicks. I'm totally talking bras and stuff. Dudes out there, try not to get weirded out.
I advise to you take my guidance with a grain of salt, as I'm still a professional kitchen rookie. These are my personal favorites, and my tastes will probably change as I gain more experience, but I'd like to think this is a good start.
Things I could not live without:
These are items I use every day.
- A Good Chef's Knife
This is your main tool in the kitchen. Your knife will become your best friend and your right hand. You will spend many, many hours chopping, slicing, brunoise-ing, mincing, and you'll want a knife with which you can comfortably spend that much time. You will become very protective of your knife, and you will learn that using someone else's knife is a privilege. Currently I'm loving the Shun Elite 8-inch that I was lucky enough to receive on my most recent birthday...
...and for three years prior to that I was using a trusty Wusthof Classic 8-inch.
I've been asked "What knives are best?" more than once since I started this blog, and I've come to this conclusion: Ultimately, there is no one "best" knife brand or size, as everyone's hands, skills, usage and personal preferences are different. I prefer an 8-inch knife, and personally I couldn't imagine wielding a 10-incher for prep and during service, especially in a small kitchen. But I know some cooks who don't like to use a chef's knife under 10-12 inches. For those still wondering, Shun, Global, Wustof, Misono and Messermeister are popular brands among cooks. No matter what, always, always, always test run a knife before buying it; most cooking stores will have test knives for that purpose. If you're buying for someone else, take that person to the store and let them try it out for themselves.
- A Decent Paring Knife
Usually 3 to 4 inches in length, this is an all-purpose tool for in-hand work. I really like my school-issued Mercer paring knife, because it has soft edges that are really comfortable in my hand.
Sure makes skinning 5 pounds of pearl onions a breeze. My paring knife is second only to my chef's knife in kitchen knife usage.
Again, all-purpose. I have two in my kit: the below-pictured Swiss peeler for wider items (blocks of cheese, winter squash, apples and such) and a traditional swivel peeler to blow through long, skinny items (carrots, parsnips, etc.).
If I could only have one, the Swiss peeler would win hands-down.
- Messermeister Knife Bag
As much as I like my OCI-issued Mercer knives, the clunky, heavy knife case it came with was a certified pain to carry. I didn't realize exactly how much of a pain it was until I switched to a Messermeister knife roll, which carries the same amount of stuff in a much more compact, light and efficient package. Bought mine at Sur La Table.
- Birkenstock "Birki" Chef Clogs
Holy mother of bejeebus. These shoes literally saved my back (and feet). After an extremely painful three weeks of culinary school in Dansko clogs, I followed a friend's recommendation and purchased a pair of Birkis. I would say these shoes count as one of my top five purchases ever. They're that good. I've spilled on them, dragged them through mop water, dropped hot oil on them, and they're as good as the day I bought them. And they're dishwasher safe! Seriously, what more could you ask for in a shoe?
It's not exactly an every day item, but I'm surprised at how frequently I do use it. Nothing compares to a Microplane for zesting and grating.
It's really one of those "once you go there, you never go back" items. It's the shit, ya'll.
Things that are really nice to have in your toolbox:
Not quite essentials (or not yet, for me, anyway), and I don't own all of these items, but these are certainly helpful to have and, I've noticed, popular amongst restaurant cooks.
- Serrated knife
- Boning/filet knife
- Plastic/flexible pastry scraper
- Japanese mandoline (nothing better for super-thin slicing, hand-tool wise)
- Flexible fish spatula
- Needlenose pliers from a hardware store (for fish pinbones)
- Reamer (aka juicer)
For the ladies in the house:
- J.Crew "Favorite Tank"
I own 7 or 8 of these tank tops in different colors, and I rarely buy anything in duplicates so you know they're good. First I bought 2 for the sake of having something under my culinary school chef's jacket that wasn't a t-shirt. I hate having sleeves on under more sleeves, so tank tops are ideal. When I got the restaurant job, I bought a few more so I could go more days without doing laundry. And then I bought a few more when I realized exactly how awesome and indispensable they are. The J.Crew tanks in particular have a long, neat fit so they hug my body without strangling it and don't ride up my waist during service. I wear them outside of work all the time too. Bonus points for often being on sale at the J.Crew website.
- A good sports/wireless bra
Ladies, you know what I'm talking about. You need good support, and there's nothing worse than straps and wires digging in your ribcage during service. I love my Calvin Klein front-clasp wireless racerback. No link, unfortunately, as I snagged mine at Nordstrom Rack and haven't found an online source.
- Scunci No-Damage hair bands
I have thick hair, and a lot of it. I also have a minor fear of a customer finding my hair in their food, which hasn't yet happened, thankfully. I started using Scunci No-Damage "Firm and Tight" hair bands several years ago and they're the only hair bands I've found that hold my unwieldy hair without having to readjust during service. The "No-Damage" means there's no metal parts to pinch or catch your hair. I've seen these in almost every major grocery and drug store I've been to.
And that's all, folks. I'm sure there's plenty more out there that I'm missing, but this is what I can come up with off the top of my head. I personally could use properly tailored chef pants that I don't have to roll up or step on during service, and a few nicely fitted chef's jackets.
Anyone have other "must have" suggestions?