Watching television during the wee hours can be downright dangerous, not only to your sleep schedule, but also to your wallet. Valuable time can be wasted on late-night hucksters bound and determined to get you to part with your hard-earned cash in exchange for expensive, frivolous and oftentimes gigantic kitchen gadgets that almost always perform one generally unnecessary task (e.g. turning bacon into a bowl). These “tools” are not what you need in a hard-working kitchen and most certainly not what you need to turn out really good food. So, what are the items you can’t live without in your personal kitchen arsenal? We asked local chefs and food professionals and they answered. And, after pretty much everyone chimed in with different strains of alcohol (Japp’s owner Molly Wellmann bribes people to cook for her with bourbon), pork fat, love and various tools for punishing unruly wait staff (most creative goes to Lavomatic’s chef Josh Campbell for his Flex-o-Lite ping pong paddle), they got down to serious business.
Top on the list for chefs, almost universally, are good knives. Andrew Vogel, chef instructor at Midwest Culinary Institute put it best: “A good chef’s knife is an extension of my arm.” Chris Weist, owner of Cincy Sharp knife sharpening and the man entrusted with sharpening all of the best knives in town, says that sharp knives are essential: “They cut where you put them without a bunch of extra effort … and also because they cut instead of bruising delicate items.” Chef Matthew Buschle of Virgil’s Café uses his boning knife and a cleaver constantly, and for chef Matt Cranert, formerly of Cumin, it’s a Chinese cleaver — “I can do anything with that baby,” he says.
You can purchase the finest ingredients and cook them on the trendiest equipment, but if they’re not seasoned correctly, you will have food that no one will want to eat. Just ask Colonel De Stewart of Colonel De Gourmet Herbs & Spices, lovingly referred to as the “Jedi Spice Master” by more than a few local chefs. To chefs, there is no seasoning more important than that good old standby: salt. “It’s not a spice, it's a flavor-enhancer. If you don't have salt, you ain't got shit,” says Mike Florea, owner/chef at Maribelle’s eat+drink. Chef Kyle Johnson of Local 127 agrees. “It would have to be salt over everything else. I could do without all the fancy tools, but without salt, there would be no flavor.”
Basic wooden spoons are great for sauces and the pastry world, according to Dana Scott Adkins, kitchen manager at Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant. The basic rubber spatula is tool of choice for chef Jean-Robert de Cavel of Jean-Robert’s Table. “They are cheap, you can use them for many things, and I can whack Jared [chef de cuisine Jared Whalen] with them,” he says. Interestingly enough, the rubber spatula was Whalen’s chosen item as well. For taking hot items out of the oven, Josh Freid, owner/operator of Mac’s Pizza Pub, suggests getting some heavy metal tongs, as they’re especially good for pulling pizza screens out of the oven.
Cheap is often best. According to chef Lauren Brown of Igby’s (and most all chefs), plastic deli containers are perfect: “You can keep any food product in them. And, with that said, freeze, refrigerate, reheat solids and liquids and, my favorite of course, to drink out of.” Salomon Rabinovich, chef/owner at Gaijin Catering, loves basic plastic wrap because, “You can fall down the steps, crack your skull, but as long as your mise [en place] are tightly double-wrapped, they're safe.”
The scientific component often comes into play in the kitchen, so investing in a good kitchen scale is a wise choice. Peggy Shannon, owner of Queen City Cookies notes that, “it's impossible to bake without one.” And Ryan Santos of Please is always aiming for precision and consistency in his kitchen.
For a big-ticket investment item, Tricia Houston, farmer and chef at The Farm Girl Chef at Napoleon Ridge Farm, can’t do without her KitchenAid stand mixer and all of its attachments, especially the meat grinder, pasta maker, chopper and sausage stuffer. Houston’s has been chugging away since 1994. Another good multitasker to consider is a tagine. Jay Buchheim, The WebChef, uses it for everything from soups to braising beef and chicken. He also says it’s perfect for baking a Spanish omelet.
Music plays a huge roll in most professional kitchens. Chef Dave Taylor, formerly of La Poste, says, “It’s a great tool for getting everyone functioning on the same wavelength. The right song at the right time, and all of a sudden everyone is moving to the same beat, at the same pace. It takes people out of a chaotic place ... and puts them all on the same page.” In Rookwood chef Jackson Rouse’s kitchen, it’s his portable record player providing the beats.
Without a cup of coffee, both chef Frances Kroner of Feast/Sleepy Bee Café and sous chef Martha Tiffany of Maribelle’s eat+drink can’t get through the day, because, as Tiffany says, “Nothing happens if you aren’t awake.”
But perhaps the most important element in the kitchen is truly the most ancient, basic and least expensive one of all. As far as Lavomatic’s Campbell is concerned, he can’t cook anything without fire.