Over the course of opening 4 restaurants—Ivan Ramen—in 2 countries, I have left some of my best and most beloved equipment and tools in each establishment. It’s always the same: tight budget, and I'd need a cleaver, a rondo, knives, sharpening stones... I personally owned them all, and would bring them to—and leave them at—each shop. Recently I finally put the brakes on this behavior and put all my restaurants equipment needs in the budget (duh?!). In the last year or so, I have finally started to rebuild my inventory of missing tools and equipment in my home kitchen. Here are a few of my favorites:
Sometimes you need to be taken down a notch to grow. This happened to me about a year ago, when my wife suggested that real chefs' knives should be sharp (ouch). I took the hint and swore to never let an edge lapse on my knives again. My current favorite sharpener is the Shapton Glass Stone system, a wet stone made with a very consistent grit that allows me to get the most exacting of edges on my knives. It also requires just a spritz of water to use. I own a rubber case that doubles as a non-slip holder, and 220, 500, and 2000 grit stones, going from coarse to fine. It’s a little pricey, so luckily it’s not the only game in town: Any Japanese wet stone will work, and some even have two different grits—medium and fine on either side. In a pinch, a sharpener with slots that you brush your knife through or even an electric sharpener is better than a dull blade in the drawer, which will keep you far away from joy in the kitchen.
4 1/2-inch Utility Knife
With my newly rediscovered sharpening skills, a couple of new knives were called for. While I most often have a 7- to 8-inch knife as my favorite daily knife, I recently received the Miyabi Birchwood 4 1/2-inch utility knife. It's as sharp as a razor, and so thin and light that I forget it's in my hand. Over the holidays, it's become my go-to blade for trimming meat, cutting veggies into tiny sizes for the tiny Japanese vessels they ultimately rest in, and peeling the dozens of apples and pears my kids ate all day during their holiday break home from school. A sharp 4 1/2- to 5-inch blade is a great knife to have next to your cutting board at all times. If you can add an 8-inch knife to that, you’ll be unstoppable.
Cast Iron Enamel Rice Cooker
Staub has become my favorite cast iron enamel pan over the years; the lids have spikes on the underside that facilitates condensation to drop back into the simmering pot and "self-baste," providing a superior finished product.
I have been pulled into the electric rice cooker world for too long, relying on fuzzy logic to make me perfect rice. Once I received the Staub rice cooker, I had to go back and really think about rice and what it takes to make it perfectly: The rice that comes out of the pot has each grain cooked individually, rather than tightly stuck together, and each grain is fully cooked, giving a texture that is hard to achieve with other cooking methods.
With the electric rice cooker, I got lazy and would measure up to the lines etched on the inside of the pot—but now I was "feeling" the rice. I stopped measuring water altogether and would add rice to the pot (it's small, so 300 to 400 grams is its limit), wash it in three changes of cold water, and then enough add water so that when I poked my index finger into the pot, there was one knuckle's worth of water between the water's surface and the rice. While the Staub is great, any small cast iron enamel pot with a heavy lid will work.
More: Make Ivan's Shimeji Rice.
Burr-Style Coffee Grinder
I’ve been obsessed with coffee since I was in high school. And I’ve been brewing it one cup at a time for almost as long. When I graduated from a blade grinder to a burr grinder, I was stunned at the difference. The blade grinds the beans unevenly and heats them up, while a burr grinder consists of two textured grinders that rotate in opposite directions and grind without heating the beans—and always gives a consistent grind. Baratza is the professional's choice and is fairly affordable. Breville makes several nice models, and Oxo just came out with a very cool one with an integrated scale. Either way, grinding fresh beans per cup or pot is the way to the best cup of coffee and doesn’t have to break the bank.
What's a tool that's changed the way you cook? Tell us in the comments!
Ivan Orkin is a chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author based in New York.