Weeknight Cooking

Cal Peternell’s Essential Tools for Your First Kitchen (& Every Kitchen Thereafter)

February 25, 2015

As home cooks, we rely on our instincts, our knowledge, and our curiosities -- but we also have to rely on our tools. Which is why we're asking the experts about the essential tools we need to make our favorite foods attainable in our own kitchens.

Today: Cal Peternell, the chef at Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse, sent his oldest son to college with the essential tools for his first kitchen. Within a week, Cal started receiving calls from his son with myriad cooking queries -- all the questions you ask when you’re feeding yourself for the first time (and you’re used to good, home-cooked meals).

The lessons taught over the phone turned into Twelve Recipes, a charming book in which Cal teaches us how to make the best versions of simple foods (toast, eggs, pasta) and then turn them into remarkably homey, pleasurable dishes. The tools Cal uses are equally commonplace, but beloved and essential for good reason.

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I find that when simple tools are fancified, they are often made less useful. With some exceptions -- notably, knives -- I do much of my equipment shopping in second-hand stores, flea markets, and shops in Chinatown. All essential tools can be found at simple stores, at inexpensive prices. And remember: Don’t be afraid to get your hands in there. Our 5-fingered tools that are always at the ready are the best ones we can use.

1. Cast iron pan
The presence of a well-seasoned cast iron pan gives any kitchen instant credibility, and not just because of its timeless dark good looks. It will fry and scramble eggs non-stickily -- poach them too. Sear steaks, beef, and fish, or chicken legs and breast, in the pan on top of the stove and in a hot oven. You can cook and rustically serve a potato or vegetable gratin in one. A trusty cast iron pan roasts roasts, fries fries, even bakes cakes. Considering that they can often be found cheaply at flea markets and secondhand stores, why would you not have at least one?

2. Chef’s knife
It can’t do everything, but in addition to its regular duties chopping and dicing, a decent chef’s knife can be recruited to cut meat, slice bread, crush garlic, julienne vegetables, and, with care, open a bottle of beer -- so nearly everything. Choosing from the enormous range of sizes and prices on offer, I go with a moderately-priced 8-inch model of a lighter weight and Japanese make.

3. Vegetable peeler
If, say, you needed the gilt off the lily, you could do worse than reaching for the cheapest, and best, sort of vegetable peeler: one of those Y-shaped, candy-colored, plastic types that will do you better than any fancy model. It can also be used to make curls of carrots, parsnip chips for frying, and shavings of Parmesan for your salad.

More: Peel, quarter turn, peel, quarter turn, repeat a bunch of times, and you'll end up with a salad of vegetable ribbons.

4. Box grater
For grating cheese both in the kitchen and at the table, I veer away from the microplane and towards the simple box grater, though not the infuriating sort with sharp little star-shaped teeth that seem to not want to spit out the cheese once it’s chewed it. A sturdy box grater is handy as well for grating carrots for salads, zucchinis for fritters or bread, and lemons and other citrus for zest. 

More: Grate your way to sweet potato fritters.

5. Tongs
Chefs eager to put a very fine point on things today tote long elegant tweezers as if they were sidearms, draw-ready should a micro-green need alignment. Tongs, the kind that are hinged at the end (not in the middle like scissors) suit my less-surgical style better. My 12-inch tongs come into play at the grill, while pan-frying or sautéing, for juicing a lemon, when something rolls behind the stove, and, again, popping the top off a refreshing bottle. 

6. Mortar and pestle
The recent comeback of adults walking and running about barefoot may signal that the Paleo-faithful are going beyond reviving the diet of early man. And if loin-cloth fashion is staging a comeback, may I suggest the ancient kitchen be resurrected as well? First stop: the mortar and pestle store. Bam bam and you’ve got spices ground. Bam bam and garlic is pounded, anchovies crushed, pesto conjured. Marble or wood, it just needs to be roomy enough to accommodate some serious Stone Age action.

More: Bam bam, make pesto -- no recipe required.

7. Spider
For their charming names alone, I was tempted to include a tamis and salamander on this list, but in truth, I own neither. Luckily, I do use my bamboo-handled and well-named spider all the time. For dipping things out of hot oil or boiling water, and for pushing hard-boiled eggs or ripe avocadoes through, a spider is unbeatable.

8. Wind-up minute timer
A wind-up minute timer does not record videos, take pictures, or receive texts like a cell phone does: Its old-fashioned, single-minded commitment to minding time is exactly where its appeal lies. No calls or digital distractions please, I’m timing these eggs. The vigorous twist that sets it in motion makes me feel like I am really getting meaningful things done.

9. Wooden spoon
I learned last week that if any kitchen utensil is going to catch on fire, you want it to be a wooden spoon. Unlike the toxic smudge that a flaming rubber spatula would surely emit, a burning wooden spoon smells kind of nice. And after all it has meant to you, done for you -- always stirring and never hurtful -- it deserves a dramatic send-off.

More: A satisfying chili that stirs together so easily, you don't even need a recipe.

Do you still treasure a wooden spoon or other tool that you've had since your first kitchen? Let us know in the comments!

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Cal Peternell

Written by: Cal Peternell

Cal Peternell grew up on a small farm in New Jersey where his family tended vegetable gardens and raised an assortment of livestock. Convivial family dinners were a focal point of every day, when homegrown seasonal produce, eggs, and meats were enjoyed, o


Ellen March 1, 2015
I still have my original wooden rolling pin that I received as a wedding gift 34 years ago. I used it for pies, pizzas, and sugar cookies. I also used it to crush cookies and graham crackers for cookie pie crusts. I love it.
Tommy E. March 1, 2015
i can't do without a cheap metal pancake turner for my cast iron skillets.
Luvtocook March 1, 2015
It's imperative that I have whisks. I have a wooden one for my enameled cast iron skillets (metal leaves marks on the white liners) and I use two different sizes of metal whisks for my regular cast iron. Old as I am (77), I simply cannot make gravy or sauce without a whisk!
ambradambra March 1, 2015
Not strictly since my first kitchen, but will 20 years of owning one do? I'm referring to my 'mouli' which I find indispensable for pea and bean soups - much nicer texture than whizzing them in a blender.
Michelle February 27, 2015
I use my grandma's cabbage cutter and potato smasher. Both from the 50s/ 60s.
Pat E. February 26, 2015
As my daughter left for her first apartment in college, in the middle of packing her up she exclaimed, "Mom...I don't have a nutmeg grater!" ...how could a college student possible survive?!?
BubbaQ February 26, 2015
I have to have a digital timer that will not shut up until I do something about it. Not my phone, though.
luvcookbooks February 26, 2015
Nice to know I have all the basics. Love that it's unplugged. I'm a Luddite.
AntoniaJames February 25, 2015
A crumb box cutting "board" with a little magnet which keeps the bread knife in place: https://instagram.com/p/zLtcVHmB8V/?modal=true You can tell from the photo that it's been well used and loved. (I've baked nearly all our bread for over 3 decades; have had this for almost as long.) ;o)
Rebecca @. February 25, 2015
While it's not necessarily a tool, I'd suggest a big cutting board. I see too many people struggle with cramming everything on a tiny board. Even with a nice chef's knife, a cutting board that's too small will make most recipes seem more cumbersome.