A lot of what goes on behind the walls of a professional kitchen remain a mystery to us laypeople. It’s why we gravitate towards tell-alls and TV shows that attempt, at the very least, to offer some glimpse into the masterful and chaotic world of a restaurant. Sometimes, we catch a moment through a window, a swinging door, a flickering portal into the process by which our dinner emerges. But for the most part, unless we’ve spent considerable time working a dinner service, we know very little.
So that's why we're looking into the folds of a chef's uniform. At once, a professional chef can have ten pockets at his or her disposal. Sometimes more! That's like wearing cargo pants, but all over your body; or three fanny packs at once. (But more comfortable, one would hope.) Chefs store all types of tools and doodads and little secrets that we otherwise can't see, between apron pouches and sleeve sheaths and frockets (front facing pockets on t-shirts). Nick Hukezalie, the chef de cuisine at Blue Hill in New York, calls pockets "the clown cars of the culinary world." He keeps no less than ten things on him at all time during a dinner service. These can include:
Sharpies, multi colored
A lot of these are things we home cooks interact with (hello, phone!). Some others—say, a pocket knife—get a bit less use. But at the top of his list were four things that Hukezalie never goes into the kitchen without. And while he may work in an environment that's a far cry from the kitchen I cook in at home, that doesn't mean there isn't a thing or two to learn from his go-to tools.
"Kitchen tweezers are invaluable; they can grab pickles from the bottom of a jar and plate pasta perfectly. We use tweezers to manipulate garnishes during plating, but they are also great for turning roasting vegetables and meat, stirring a split condiment right in the jar without making a mess, or grabbing that pesky egg shell in an omelette," says Hukezalie. Don't have massive tweezers at the ready? No fear, chopsticks—and a very steady hand—are a perfect work around.
On his favorite adhesive, Hukezalie had this to say: "Painters tape is great for labeling everything. It sticks well but also comes off clean and comes in bright colors so it’s easy to find. Instead of writing directly on top of Tupperware or mason jar lids, make a clean and detailed label using painters tape." I'm all for his labeling on the side method. Plus, the effect is just so pretty when you can read from side to side and see what's in every container.
"Small offset spatulas often act as the ultimate multi-tool in a chef's pockets. They can be used to cut parchment paper and scrape a stubborn pan, not just decorate a cake. They’re often the first thing chefs will reach for when they’re not sure how to deal with a problem—Loose screw? Tight lid? Delicate seafood?" says Hukezalie. This spatula is all over the place, in the best way. I've only ever used one for smearing something soft, but it seems Nick's got some other methods up his sleeve. I can imagine using one to pick up the most fragile piece of fish ever so softly or wedging the sharp end into a nail and fashioning myself an impromptu screwdriver. All hail tools with so, so, so many uses!
"Usually called for in pastry recipes, bench or dough scrapers often live in chef’s pockets. They make transferring prepared ingredients for recipes clean and quick. Think how many times you’ve chopped an onion, put it into a bowl and looked down to find a mess of onion bits and skins," says Hukezalie.
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While my pockets may be filled with spare change, headphones and random bits of string (how does that get there?!), maybe one day I can fantasize about reaching for something a bit more useful.
What essential cooking tools would you keep in your pockets? Let us know your top four in the comments below.