Chefs get asked all kinds of questions. Recently, I received the following question: "Dear Chef Christopher-- I dream of being a great cook. What equipment should I have in my kitchen so that I can fulfill my dream? I want everything I need to be a great cook." For those who aspire to be the best cook they can be, having the proper kitchen equipment is paramount to maximizing success and limiting the frustration (you know, the kind you get when trying to whip egg whites with a fork and a small plastic bowl, or roast a turkey in a flimsy pan that's plainly too small--all while your in-laws look on).
If you begin with the following equipment, you will be well on your way to having what you need to cook with ease. As you continue cooking, buy additional tools as you need them.
KNIVES: The importance of high quality knives can't be stressed enough! Buy the best you can and expect to spend some serious money. It is better to buy a couple of excellent knives and slowly add to your collection rather than buying an entire set of low quality knives. Start with a chef knife and paring knife. You will also want to buy a sharpening steel.
COOKING PANS: This is another area where spending money is justified. The best pans combine different metals like aluminum or copper on the outside and stainless steel on the inside. Aluminum and copper are valued for their ability to spread heat evenly over the entire pan, and stainless steel is valued for its non-reactive qualities. Buy pans which are heavy and thick with solid handles that are well fastened to the pot. As with knives, buy the highest quality cooking pans you can afford one at a time, starting with a sauté pan and a 3 qt. sauce pan. They will last forever. At some point, a stock pot (which will be especially pricey) should be considered for serious cooking.
NON-STICK PANS: I recommend having at least 1 high quality non-stick sauté pan. It makes cooking eggs and delicate items like fish a breeze. It also cuts down on the amount of fat necessary to effectively sauté. The best place to buy such pans is from a restaurant supplier.
CUTTING BOARDS: There seems to be little difference between hard wood and plastic cutting boards from a safety standpoint, as long as they are properly washed and sanitized after each use. Personally, I like the feel of solid wood. One piece of advice--buy large cutting boards. Don't bother with these tiny boards that everyone seems to have in his or her kitchen. They are not user friendly. Once you get down to serious cutting or chopping, the small boards are always woefully inadequate and downright maddening!
WHIP/WHISK: Many still consider a whip as a "gourmet" piece of kitchen equipment. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is as essential as a kitchen stove and should be in everyone's kitchen. Nothing works better for mixing a multitude of different preparations or for making sauces or gravy. Buy a solid stainless steel whip with moderately stiff wires. Very thin wires are for mixing delicate things like egg whites or whipped cream. Very thick, solid wires are for mixing stiff dough.
SPOONS: Buy stainless spoons (both slotted and non-slotted) which are solid and won't bend no matter how tough the job. Also, buy several high quality wooden spoons for stirring delicate dishes like risotto (the sharp edge of a metal spoon would cut or bruise the rice).
LADLES: Look for ladles that are made of one piece of stainless steel rather than a handle and dome which are spot welded together. With use, spot welded ladles tend to come apart. Buy several differnet sizes.
SPATULAS: Buy a sturdy stainless spatula for general uses and a Teflon spatula for your non-stick pan. In addition, buy a silicon baking spatula for scraping bowls. Silicon is an amazing substance which is heat resistant up to 550 degrees.
FOOD PROCESSOR: This is a big ticket item, but worth its weight in gold. It will save so much time when it comes to simple chopping or more advanced preparations like mayonnaise. As with most things, buy quality-- it will last longer, be capable of tougher jobs, and give you less problems. To make the food processor easiest to use, leave it on the counter top instead of storing it in a cabinet.
MIXER: Pretty much the same thoughts as the food processor. High quality mixers are great for making bread or other tough jobs. Every kitchen should have one. Be sure that any mixer has all three attachments: paddle, dough hook, and whip. Also, find a spot on the counter where it can be easily accessed at a moment's notice.
STRAINERS: I recommend 2 strainers for every kitchen. The first is a solid stainless steel colander (one big enough to wash a lot of lettuce at once). The second strainer is a fine mesh conical strainer (called a chinois) which is a must for any serious sauce or stock making. A chinois is an expensive purchase, but with care it will last many years.
STAINLESS STEEL BOWLS: These are the best all purpose bowls for a multitude of applications. Choose a wide range of sizes (be sure to get a large bowl for whipping egg whites and whipped cream). In general, the heavier the bowl, the higher quality.
BAKING SHEETS: Not too much romance here, but essential for any functional kitchen. Buy the heaviest pans possible. Also, you should consider buying a non-stick silicon sheet: they make baking very easy!
GRATER: In my opinion, the old fashioned box graters work the best since they are sturdy and offer several different grating sizes.
SALAD SPINNER: While some may consider this a bit on the gadgety side, I think it is a must as dressings do not stick to water-logged salad greens.
PLASTIC WRAP: An absolute must with a million and a half uses. But do not buy just any plastic wrap. Go to a restaurant supply store and buy a large roll of restaurant plastic wrap. It sticks much better than the common grocery store plastic wrap and is much cheaper per foot.
As a side note to this list, don't forget something all chefs know-- equipment is not everything. Experience is crucial to being a great cook. Having the right tools at your disposal is important, but practice, practice and more practice will make the well seasoned cook. So, get the right tools and lose yourself in your kitchen--a well equipped one!