Cooking and skiing share one similarity: Both can be done with inferior or poorly maintained equipment, but the experiences are greatly enhanced when using "the right stuff." Like specialized skis that make carving easier or bumps more navigable for less skilled skiers, proper - not necessarily expensive - kitchen equipment can help home cooks create successful dishes and compensate for lack of training and skill.
Growing up in my grandmother's kitchen, I thought only four types of pots existed: cast-iron Dutch oven and skillet, the latter great for searing "chops" from my grandpa's butcher shop, stockpot for boiling pasta and a small saucepan for boiling milk for her cafe au lait. That dear woman was an indomitable cook and creating huge Sicilian meals required no more than the Dutch oven and stockpot. My mom treasured her huge Magnalite cast-aluminum roaster that made its annual appearance for making her oyster dressing. So where did I get off the rails and turn into a cookware freak?
When working in a commercial kitchen, I'm in cookware heaven! A myriad of pots, pans, utensils and gadgets are at my fingertips. One wants for nothing in a well-run restaurant kitchen (except, perhaps, a lemon juicer at the Four Seasons). But what are chefs' must-have items when cooking for family and friends? I wanted to know how to improve my kitchen without the agony of sticker shock. So I asked the chefs for advice.
Paul Wade, executive chef at Vail Resorts' The 10th restaurant, shared a few thoughts with me. Wade, who is also a cheese maker and beekeeper, rarely cooks at home unless entertaining or making a barbeque. His wife, Cris, "rules" their home kitchen. Like so many chefs, Wade is fond of All-Clad pots and pans. He likes them for their quality, albeit the price can sting. In Wade's kitchen, one also can find a pasta roller, cavetelli maker and the obligatory Kitchen-Aid professional stand mixer, in addition to silpats, a Vita-Prep blender and the Rolls Royce of cast-iron pots, a Staub braiser. But like so many of his colleagues, Wade stressed the importance of good cutting boards and knives.
Next on my list was Kirk Weems, executive chef of Allie's Cabin and Rendezvous Club in Beaver Creek and mentor to many aspiring chefs. At home with his wife, Heather, also a chef, and daughter Zaida, Weems likes to test recipes before using them at events or on club restaurant menus. Despite having state-of-the-art kitchens at work, Weems' needs in his home kitchen are simple. In addition to his gel mats (my back loves mine), Weems values good, sharp knives, proper cutting boards, good-quality pots and pans and mixing bowls as his must-have items.
Regarding knives, Weems advice is to spend more money on three basic, higher quality ones than a big 12-knife block of lesser quality. And keep them sharp! Ski with dull edges on ice, and you'll exhaust yourself trying to stay upright. The same with knives. It's exhausting and frustrating work to prep food and break down meat and fish with knives that couldn't cut butter. He considers three knives to be the most important at home: chef's knife with an 8- to 12-inch blade, a serrated knife and a good utility knife that can multitask for paring and boning.
Weems uses the same professional sanitation techniques at home as he does at work. So he has several cutting boards of various sizes that he uses and tosses into the dishwasher to eliminate the potential for cross-contamination. "The appropriate board for the task" is his mantra.
One of Weems' favorites is his 12-piece nested glass bowl set ranging in size from 2 ounces to 6 quarts. He likes the "TV chef style" of cooking for friends using his see-through bowls, although it's strictly stainless steel at work.
Dan D'Onofrio, sous chef to Steve Topple at the Sonnenalp Resort, taught me how to make Chef Topple's elk Wellington. D'Onofrio cherishes his long, tweezer-like chef tongs as a multifunctional tool at the stove. He even let me use them when I was searing the pancetta-wrapped kangaroo. I found a similar, inexpensive pair on Amazon (Rosle 12925 Fine Tongs) I'll have to order. When I asked him for his must-have items at home, he responded, "Boos block cutting board and my knife kit that has everything I need."
Over coffee and a fresh croissant at The Bookworm, David Walford, owner and executive chef of Splendido, shared with me his views on must-have home kitchen items. Walford spends a good deal of his down time cooking for friends in their kitchens. The most important item he wants to find there are adequately sized cutting boards. Often he is presented with tiny boards, but Walford prefers 12-by-18-inch polyethylene boards that provide adequate space for the task at hand and don't dull his knives. Next on his list are knives: good quality, but not necessarily expensive, such as Chicago Cutlery and Forschner Victorinox. Walford also believes in having three key knives that can do the job 95 percent of the time: chef's knife with a 10- to 12-inch blade, 10-inch blade serrated and utility.
Walford places importance of proper mixing bowls over pots and pans, but only by a little. He is not a fan of glass bowls and instead prefers stainless steel of various sizes. For pots and pans, Walford believes there is nothing better than All-Clad for proper heat conductivity and long life. He prefers copper core but also likes stainless with aluminum core that are easier on the wallet. A five- to seven-piece set will last your life - and beyond - so it's a great investment. However, making do with a large stock pot, saucier and saute pan will be more than adequate to accomplish most tasks. One item Walford raved about is his rice cooker. So I guess I'll have to run to Costco to buy one so I can have perfect jasmine rice to go with my Thai curries.
Finally, I asked my favorite cooking buddy and teacher, Jane Shriner, what she can't live without. I knew before I asked: a Big Green Egg. She and her husband, Ed, are masters at cooking, grilling and baking in this ceramic, kamado-style vessel cooker. I'm hoping to get one myself. Shriner also loves her John Boos butcher block island, where prepping for her sumptuous meals begins.
In conclusion, I found that my shopping list to cook like the pros - or have them cook here - is rather short. I was happy to find I had most everything I needed, except the All-Clad. That's on my wish list! I have great knives but struggle to keep them sharp, so I'll have to work on that. My biggest challenge is finding proper ingredients for so many dishes I loved to make in Switzerland. The Europeans have one up on us there. But that will just have to wait for another article ... and another visit with the chefs.
Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is passionate about all things gastronomique. For more background information on her "Behind the Scenes" series, go to www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to email@example.com.