It’s hard to tell whether home cooking is really gaining in popularity, as indicated by recent studies showing an increase in retail kitchen websites, or if food writer Michael Pollan is right and Americans aren’t gaining interest in cooking but in watching other people cook on TV. Either way, every holiday season millions of shoppers flood kitchen and cookware stores looking for the perfect gift for a home chef. In, fact, there have been more of these shoppers every year for the last three years, according to a report by industry analysts.
Navigating the sea of “Seen on TV” gadgets in Bed, Bath & Beyond or Williams-Sonoma can be daunting, so before spending any money on a salad spinner, hot dog and bun combination toaster or that Batman ice cube tray (OK, go ahead and get that), take some advice from four of Kalamazoo’s professional chefs on three must-have items for the chef in your life.
The non-gadget gadget: A good chef’s knife
It may sound simple, but many at-home cooks don’t have a well-made knife, even though it’s essential to a home chef’s arsenal.
Chef William Kennedy II, of the Kalamazoo Beer Exchange, says this often-overlooked item can make all the difference in a kitchen.
“Gadgets are all designed to make your work easier, but if you learn how to use it well, a chef’s knife can do anything a peeler, mandoline, pair of shears, or any number of other gadgets are meant for, only faster and more precisely,” Kennedy says. “One tool, unlimited uses. It saves space, money, time, and you look pretty cool when you’re using it. There is no better tool or skill set to possess in the kitchen than knowing how to become one with your blade.”
Kennedy says that if you’re looking for supplementary gifts for a chef, consider a class on how to use a good chef’s knife.
“Many cooking academies offer workshops in knife skills, as do many local chefs who offer private instruction. If there is demand, some culinary supply stores even offer classes for their customers, so ask around and make a chef’s knife the best present you ever gave, for your favorite chef or for yourself.”
It should be said that pretty much all the chefs we talked to said a good kitchen knife was the best “gadget” in the kitchen, but after some arm-twisting they came up with the following two recommendations:
The unique gadget: A portable cucumber slicer
Every good chef knows presentation is almost as important as taste. The more fresh and colorful a dish appears, the more appetizing it is. One of the most popular presentation techniques in plating courses is decorative arrangements of finely sliced roots and vegetables.
To get just the right fine slice, Food Dance Chef Robb Hammond recommends a portable beauty cucumber slicer.
“These small Japanese cucumber slicers are great to shave small things like garlic, radishes, truffles and, of course, cucumbers,” Hammond says. “They are sold in Japan to slice cucumbers thin for facials – hence the mirror. Plus, they are only $5.”
Portable cucumber slicers can be found easily on Amazon, eBay and other online sites. Just be sure to search “portable cucumber slicer” to get the exact slicer Hammond recommends, instead of a more heavy-duty kitchen slicer that will produce thicker slices. Locally, a high-end version of the portable slicer, pictured on the previous page and priced at $30, is available at Kim’s Oriental Store at 3627 S. Westnedge Ave.
The gadgety gadget: A handheld blending wand
This item is so popular that two local chefs recommend it. One of the greatest challenges for the home chef is how to blend liquids easily and quickly, particularly when making soup. A handheld blending wand provides a perfect solution.
“I’m not a big gadget guy,” says Bravo! chef and owner Shawn Hagen. “A French knife and a tenderizing hammer can do just about any job, but a wand blender is an awesome machine. It can make a sauce silky smooth or a soup just the perfect chunky texture. It works on a very small batch, in a measuring cup or a huge soup pot.”
Fandango chef Will Cantor agrees, adding that this gadget provides convenience too.
“It’s my favorite kitchen gadget,” he says, “because you can just blend anything right in the container it’s made in or stored in, whether the liquid is hot or cold. Also, it’s the easiest gadget in the kitchen to clean.”
Handheld blending wands can be found at most online and brick-and-mortar kitchen retailers and cost about $40 to $60.