A chef's toolbox

In expert hands, the simplest implements work magic

Posted: March 22, 2007

CHEFS HAVE BEEN using tools since early man first used a sharpened tree branch to skewer a slab of wild boar over the cave fire.

Today, things are a little more complicated.

The gorgeous food that winds up artfully arranged on your restaurant plate had to be coaxed, cajoled and chopped up one side and down the other to get that way.

For most chefs, that simply can't happen without their one prized kitchen toy.

Surprisingly, their tools of choice aren't the high-tech gadgets you'd expect star chefs to employ.

They are simple knives, spoons, pots, pans or grinding stones that, in their owners' hands, are magic wands with stories behind them, objects that transform ingredients into delicious works of art.

Ansill chef Kibett Mengech uses fancy processors and high-end cookware when he has to, but don't try to take away his spoon. Found in a tub of stuff bought at a restaurant auction more than five years ago, Mengech's spoon is special.

"It's long enough to fit in the hand, balanced, has a good-sized bowl with a tapered tip that lets me sauce plates cleanly and neatly."

And, it's multi-purposed, he adds. It's perfect for flipping scallops, but the handle end is pointy enough to cut open boxes. A beautiful thing.

Luis Melendez from Gigi in Old City is another guy who's crazy for spoons. He keeps a dozen larger-than-tablespoon-sized spoons within reach in the kitchen or in his back pocket to sauce meat and fish, make designs, shovel paella and stir stock.

"I can't live without my spoon," agrees Ben Davison at ¡Pasión!. "It's like an artist's paintbrush. I use it for everything. It's also perfect for streaks and lines. It's multi-purpose and I can't be without it in my kitchen."

For Penne executive chef and pasta high-priestess Roberta Adamo, the object of her affection is wooden, ridged, and about five inches long and three inches wide.

No, it's not a spoon.

It's her well-worn ridged board, used to seal the edges of her signature garganelle and gnocchi.

"It also puts perfect sauce-catching ridges on pasta," says Adamo, who buys the boards from Fante's on 9th Street. With more than 70 pounds of pasta coming out of her kitchen every day, it's a gadget that she couldn't live without.

For making pasta and ravioli at the Borgata's Specchio, chef Luke Palladino adores his antique brass fluted pasta cutting wheel. "I have had it for many years, but I think it goes back to the late 1800s. And she's still holding up."

At Restaurant M, chef David Katz stays low-tech with a hand-crank pasta machine, a present from his wife five years ago. "It works like a charm, but I've used it so much that the clamp doesn't hold anymore. My buddy . . . holds it down while I roll out two pounds of pasta at a time."

It's no big surprise that some chefs are just crazy for their knives. Lacroix's Matt Levin treasures the razor-sharp Japanese knife that Georges Perrier gave him when he left Le Bec Fin's kitchen. "I use it for all fish prep, especially raw work. It's carbon steel and gets crazy sharp."

At Cork, in Westmont, N.J., chef Sae An slices, dices, chops and juliennes with his Wusthof knives. "It's the first brand I learned to cook with, and I still like it the best."

In the hands of a skilled chef, a sharp French knife is better than any machine, according to Bootsie's chef Ron Bowlby.

Jared Martin, top toque at Triumph Brewing Co., which just added an Old City location to brew pub/restaurants in Princeton and New Hope, likes to play with scissors. His kitchen shears have been with him since the beginning of his career, when he started cutting up live soft-shell crabs at a restaurant in Napa. He's cut organic herbs with them at the Ryland Inn and cut cheesecloth with them to make tofu molds in Vermont. He'd be lost without them.

Globe-trotting chef Alison Barshak lugged her favorite gadget home from Mexico. It's a heavy stone mortar and pestle (or molcajete) that she calls the original food processor. She uses it in the kitchen at Alison at Blue Bell to blend Chinese five-spice powder, Thai curry mix, and pastes made from herbs and aromatics.

"Nothing beats a mortar and pestle for drawing out flavor and texture," Barshak says. "I feel more of a connection to the original product. Plus, it smells better and it produces a deeper, more complex and better-tasting end result."

The City Tavern's Walter Staib also is a committed grinder. He uses a grinding stone created from volcanic ash from Nicaragua, an artifact that is still used exactly as it was thousands of years ago. Staib likes to grind allspice with it for his signature pepper pot soup, a recipe he adapted from one borrowed from a Jamaican bush doctor.

For chef Joey Balaaldia at Abbraccio Restaurant in West Philly, a 20-gallon stock pot that goes back at least 27 years is his prized possession. The pot came from owner Duane Bell's original restaurants, the Gold Standard and the Palladium. "We bought the pot at Swift Food Equipment on 2nd Street in 1979," says Bell. "We think it was originally military-issue. It says 'US 1947 20 gallons' on it." When its spigot has broken a few times over the years, only Bell's plumber, Eric Kassab, can fix it.

And stay away from chef Stephen Calise of McCormick & Schmick's when he has his favorite fork in his hand. A long-tined piece of business used for spearing meat, it wound up in his arm up to the bone on a busy Saturday night at the Phoenician in Scottsdale, Ariz., a few years back.

"It was on top of my toolbox, and in the heat of the moment I quickly reached into my box and ouch! From then on, I knew better safe than sorry," said Calise.

Blenders are popular in more than one kitchen around town. Chef Joe Lazar at Tori's loves his heavy-duty one for making vinaigrettes, pestos and herb-infused oils. And at Blush in Bryn Mawr, chef Nicholas Farina fires his up to puree soups and create mint foam to top Mango Poblano Ono.

The bottom line? Handy kitchen tools don't have to be new and they don't have to be modern.

Just ask Patrice Rames from Patou, who uses his aunt's 80-year-old cast-iron sauté pan for crepes, French toast and desserts. "Sometimes, the old ways work best," he says.

One bite of Rames' crepes, and you know he's speaking the truth. *

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