In Part III of this series, we talked about how the sous vide machine is changing the game for private chefs. Sometimes it’s the big things, but sometimes it’s the little things. We asked for four chefs from Private Chefs of the SF Bay what they couldn’t do without in the kitchen, aside from their knives, of course. The response was a mix of sentimental favorites and indispensables. Some of the answers might surprise you:
From Chef Rose Johnson – “my whisks and my spatulas for scraping every bit last bit out of the bowl”. Not a surprising response from a chef whose roots are are as a pastry chef (see Chef Rose’s “Let Them Eat Cake… and Champagne” menu). Why a whisk? Rose says that, “When I was doing my apprenticeship in Philadelphia, I was working under one of the best Pastry/dessert chefs in the city. This guy was brilliant and demanding and worked me to exhaustion every day. One of my first responsibilities was to make the custards every morning; Crème Brûlée ice cream bases and the Sabayon. Each of these menu items required an enormous amount of time and patience whisking over the stove. I developed special “whisk muscles” in my forearms! The best part of that daily routine however was that the whisking would center me. Having to hyper focus and whisk and whisk until the perfect consistency was my personal nirvana.” This would explain why Chef Rose chose a whisk as her logo, and, in fact, most chefs do have a wide assortment of whisks and rubber spatulas (see slideshow).
Chef Josh Garcia also mentions spatulas; in particular his fish spatula, and Cook’s Illustrated agrees, “Fish spatulas—elongated versions of the standard pancake flipper—are designed expressly for shimmying underneath delicate fillets. And we’ve found no better tool for extracting sticky vegetables from a baking sheet or transferring fresh-baked pastries from oven to cooling rack.” His fish spatula is so much a part of Chef Josh’s life that he has it tattooed on his arm (see slideshow). His other favorite? A box-end or foam spoon that baristas use for skimming foam off milk without picking up any of the milk. Chef Josh uses it to baste meats in brown butter. A multipurpose tool, the flat edge is useful for “all kinds of situations” he says, in fact, it lives in the pocket of his chef’s coat and he calls it a “chef’s shovel”.
Wild game chef Bobbie Jo Wasiliko loves her “silicone-coated tongs that are strong enough to grab everything from a 10 pound wild boar roast to a tiny piece of diced carrot”.
Chef Andrea Gray (full disclosure: I am a private chef as well as a columnist, yes it’s me!) has some interesting favorites, two ancient and one is a relative newcomer to the kitchen. “Even though it weighs a ton I don’t do a gig without brining my molcajete and tejolote”, a mortar and pestle made out of volcanic rock with three little legs which has been in use in Mexico since Pre-Columbian times (see slide show). “I use it to make dressing for Caesar salad, to grind spices (the flavor released is so potent that you need to adjust quantities if working from a recipe) and, of course, to make salsas”. Chef Gray favors another indigenous kitchen tool pair, the ulu and a set of wooden tree bowls, which she picked up in Alaska. The ulu and bowl is the perfect combination for chopping because the bowl means nothing flies across the counter and the blade, curved to match the shape of the bowl, give you a great edge. “I have a tree bowl set I got from the Alaska Bowl Co., which means all 3 nesting bowls are made from a single cross section of a tree trunk. The different sized bowls give you options for different quantities and ingredients. I use my smallest bowl for herbs, especially cilantro and parsley; and use the largest bowl with my ulu to rough cut baby potatoes into a great hash”. The other favorite is a long pair of kitchen tweezers. Yes, tweezers have made their way into the kitchen, they’ve even captured the attention of the NY Times, which did an entire article on this nifty kitchen newcomer, “The more intricate and immaculate the plate, the more it is likely that tweezers played a role. Chefs say tweezers let them assemble meticulous compositions quickly, and with such consistency they look the same every time”. It’s true, they are great for plating, especially when working with edible flowers or other delicate ingredients and are also indispensable for removing small, slippery things from those narrow-mouth jars, for example to get at capers, olives, or anchovies. This is really important because, as a private chef, you are often working in an open kitchen environment, or, at the very least, the host/ess is coming and going while you are working– it’s not only important to make sure presentation is perfect at the table, your presentation in the kitchen counts, too.
The other thing that came up consistently when we asked was pans: sauté pans, grill pans, cast-iron pans. It seems that for different reasons, different chefs prefer cooking with their own pans even if it means additional schlepping. Cooking Instructor and Chef Mike Chapter brings his cast-iron pan with him because it belonged to his grandmother, plus who wouldn’t want to cook in cast iron! Chef Bobbie Jo has a huge stainless steel, copper-bottomed pan that she calls “a workhorse”; large enough to seat a whole rack of venison, it goes in the oven and works beautifully for braising meats because she can count on it to sear evenly. Chef Andrea’s favorite is her grill pan, which she uses to finish off sous vide meats and fish: It leaves those beautiful grill marks that are the perfect finish to a tenderloin or piece of salmon.
Previous in this series: What it takes to be a private chef, Part III: How sous vide is changing the game
Next in this series: What do you need to outfit your kitchen like a pro?