A lot of cooking gift stories tout lavish accessories and single-use tools, the kind of stuff you pull out of the back of the cupboard once every six months. This is not one of those stories. Here, we are rounding up the tools—not showy gadgets, but tools—that chefs in Wine Spectator’s Restaurant Awards program keep close at hand.
We asked them for the objects they use most and always travel with. Some are quite rudimentary, and that’s part of what makes them so important. A cabinetmaker will never be far from their hammer or saw; likewise, a chef building a fine plate in a restaurant, and the home cook too, always have certain things within reach. Whether you're shopping for someone just starting out in a new home or for an experienced cook who needs some superior tools to elevate their skills, these chefs have shared picks, tips and hacks that are sure to be put to good use.
Succotash Restaurant, Washington, D.C.
Award of Excellence
GE Cool Touch Kettle, $99
“I always bring an electric kettle when I cook on the road. The one I like is a GE Cool Touch Kettle. It is great for holding sauces warm when there is not enough space to cook. It has a digital control temp so you can keep your sauce at exactly the perfect temp. It can hold soup, it can keep your oil warm for a dish if needed. It's powerful so if you need to boil water, it does it quickly. Also, it's very portable and durable. I always bring it to any cooking event I do.”
Silpat Baking Mat, $40
“I like traveling with a Silpat. It makes anything that is baked more precise and pretty, anything from tuiles to crisps. So many times, you cook in a kitchen that doesn't have the equipment you are used to and there is nothing worse than walking into a kitchen with nothing but warped and beat up sheet pans when you are trying to make a soigné garnish. A Silpat solves all that. It is like traveling with your own sheet pan that is light as a feather and rolls up into a small space.”
Microplane Stainless Steel Grater, $18
“I always travel with a Microplane. It gives you maximum flavor extraction for minimal space in your luggage. I use it for everything from zesting limes and lemons to creating granitas by freezing fruit and shaving them frozen to making chocolate snow or even foie gras snow. It is an amazing tool.”
Vetri Cucina, Philadelphia and Las Vegas
Best of Award of Excellence, Award of Excellence
“Anyone that knows me knows that I love espresso, so when I travel my go-tos are:
Miscela d’Oro Gran Crema Espresso Beans, $26 for 2.2 pounds
“The espresso is from Sicily and it has such a rich chocolate tobacco taste. A lot of these third-wave espressos are super acidic, and I can’t tolerate them. This one is 30 percent robusta beans and 70 percent arabica. No one uses robusta anymore, but I dig the mix and think it has the best crema and flavor. It’s also from Sicily, which is where my family is from.”
6-Cup Bialetti Express Moka Pot, $40
“The Moka pot is just a good brand that I like. It’s old school, and I dig traditional stuff.”
The Oven, Lincoln, Neb.
Best of Award of Excellence
Wüsthof 10-inch Classic Ikon Knife, $274
“I travel everywhere with my Wüsthof 10-inch Classic Ikon Knife in my bag. I'll use it to cut meat for curries and, as long as I have that and my hands, that is all I need to travel with. My favorite kitchen tools are my tandoors to grill meats and make naans, but I can't travel anywhere with those, so all you will see me with is my knife!”
Saison, Angler, San Francisco, Calif.
Grand Award, Best of Award of Excellence
Dexter Russell Chinese Cleaver, $56
“Being first-generation Chinese-American, I often watched my mom and grandma cook with these; they were the only knives we really had in the kitchen. Working in professional kitchens, I would occasionally come across cooks that like using these, but I never found myself interested in using one in a professional setting, mainly because they’re a lot larger of a tool than I like having around. It wasn't until I moved out on my own and was living on a budget that I found myself needing to stock the kitchen in my apartment with an inexpensive knife that was versatile and easy to maintain. I headed down to the Bowery in Manhattan and picked up my first and only Chinese cleaver. I quickly started to reach for the cleaver when I cooked at home over most of my other knives. It's the pick-up truck of knives: It's humble, very easy to keep sharp, versatile and will probably outlive me. My favorite part is when I am cooking at home it is easy to use the large blade to pick up what I just cut to move to a pot, pan or container helping work cleaner and faster. So maybe my mom and grandma knew a few things I didn't.”
Joyce Chen Scissors, $25
“First, they help keep your knives sharp since I reach for [the scissors] instead of using my kitchen knife to open bags or containers, which can dull out knives quickly. They are also great for cutting small herbs without bruising them and over-handling them. When we break down fish we have a pair handy to help get through some of the bones with more control than a knife so that we do not damage the beautiful fish we receive. Ironically, almost every cook in kitchens that I have worked in has a pair, but it is also one of the items that gets lost the most. I personally have lost over 10 in my career. I specifically like the smaller Joyce Chens because they are sharp and a lot more manageable in size than the standard larger kitchen shear.”
Drinking and Knowing Things, $10
Want to know the best California Chardonnay to bring to your next neighborhood dinner party? If so, this book isn’t for you. But if you’ve always wanted to learn more about the seemingly enigmatic world of wine and haven’t known where to start, pour yourself a glass of wine and imbibe on Drinking and Knowing Things, the latest from wine author Michael Amon.
Delivered in Amon’s trademark irreverent, unpretentious yet thoroughly informative manner, DAKT is an easily digestible, entertaining and pragmatic way to simultaneously gain practical and diverse wine knowledge. Equally suitable for the wine newbie or experienced sommelier, the book is a collection of 50+ short entries, each covering a unique wine region, topic or type of wine—ranging from the well-known to the obscure—focusing on the most important points to know, infused with helpful hacks and tips.
Each entry ends with Amon’s personal recommendations, for readers to purchase on their own and explore what they’ve just learned. With exactly 52 topics, it’s the perfect companion to become smarter and more confident about wine (not to mention, the star of your next neighborhood party!) in a year—for yourself or as an awesome gift!
Cote Korean Steakhouse, New York, N.Y.
Best of Award of Excellence
Tsukiji Masamoto 10.6-inch Carbon Steel Sujihiki, $226
“[Carbon-steel knives] are a lot easier to sharpen and [hold their] sharpness longer in my opinion. Also, it's a knife that you can do everything with. I realize this is a long knife and many people are not comfortable using longer knives, however, once you get used to the length and get comfortable, the cuts that you make are better/cleaner.
“I use this knife for meat butchering, fish butchering and all varieties of vegetables from fine cuts such as brunoise, julienne, even fluting a mushroom and rough cuts to anything you ask for. Cote is a steak house and everyday there is loads of butchery to oversee, and with this knife I can tackle any style of butchering possible and also make our signature diamond cuts for galbi (marinated short ribs).
“This is the one that I will always have in my knife kit, and if for some reason I don't have this available, I will immediately regret it.”
Lure Fishbar, Miami Beach, Fla.
Award of Excellence
Gray Kunz Sauce Spoon, $12
“The first time I started using a Gray Kunz spoon was when I started at Restaurant Jean-Georges in Manhattan. It was the perfect spoon to make quenelles of tuna tartare. As I moved up the ranks at J-G, Kunz spoons were the only spoons in my toolkit. The precision when saucing the plate of asparagus with morels or roasted squab was second to none. That was almost 20 years ago and those same spoons are still in my kit today. Anywhere I go to cook, they are with me. Kunz spoons are great gifts, especially for a home cook who will quickly realize the difference in cooking experience and final results, just by having a superior tool in their kit.”
Vitamix Legacy Series 5200 Standard Blender, $400
“At the beginning of my culinary career, I thought all blenders were the same. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Vitamix brand—specifically model 5200—has more power, lasts longer and looks better than most blenders available. I started using this blender at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago. I used it for a corn soup and would never have survived without it. This blender is absolutely essential to my style of cuisine and I wouldn’t run a restaurant without it. I love it because of its power and versality. They make the best kitchen tool gifts because you can puree soups to the proper consistency, break down herbs for salsa verde, pulverize pistachios for a pistachio crusted halibut or crush ice for a perfect frozen margarita. Pro tip: To achieve super-smooth consistency, always use the plunger to force whatever is mixing through the blades of the blender.”