If you could only own one knife, which one would it be?
What's your favorite cookware set?
Do you like butcher block cutting boards or composite boards?
What kind of grill do you use?
There isn’t a week that goes buy that I don’t get asked some version of one of the above questions. It’s funny, because if I think too hard about my replies, I can easily slide down the slippery-slope of technical chef responses like, “well, it depends on what you’re cooking-cutting-cleaning-grilling-roasting, etc.”, but I know those aren't the type of replies people are looking for. No, you want a “desert island” list. So I’m going to frame this list of recommendations like I don’t have the entire internet and an unlimited kitchen-gadget budget at my disposal. These are the tools I use and love (click on the photos for a direct link to the product):
You can spend a ton of money on hand-forged custom chef knives and high-end block sets (I’ve been a consumer of both many times). But honestly, after 20 years of cooking professionally and several thousand dollars invested in knives, I still think it’s about how sharp your knife is and how comfortable it is for you to use.
If you are diligent about keeping your blade sharp (hand-washing, drying and daily honing) and you use the same knife day in and day out you will have a precision instrument that feels like an extension of your own hand. Ultimately these are the two most important factors in purchasing a knife. It doesn’t matter how much it costs, what accessories it comes with, what chef is promoting it or what space-aged material it’s made of. What matters is that it’s sharp and comfortable for you to use.
That being said, I love a custom hand-forged knife as much as the next guy and my personal collection of kitchen knives do sit in a block on my counter. However, I rarely use my $900 Japanese boning knife or my $1,200 Damascus slicer and there are only a few of the original knives from that set still in the block.
The knife I use every day? The one knife to rule them all and the one knife I would take to my desert island cookout? I’m going to pack my Global Classic 7” Asian Chef knife.
It’s an effective vegetable cleaver, slicer, boner and by far the best all-around utility knife I’ve ever owned. Not only is this knife versatile, but it is absolutely razor-sharp out of the box and because it’s made with ice-tempered Cromova 18 high-carbon stainless steel—very hard, stain resistant steel—with regular maintenance and proper care, it will look like new and hold this edge for a long time. Did I mention you can find this knife for less than $150?!
I’ve had mine for 6+ years and I have yet to put in on a stone. Maintenance is as easy as hand-washing and thoroughly drying it after each use, a quick pass on a honing rod (my favorite is the MAC ceramic honing rod) and make sure to use an edgeguard for storage. Oh, and don’t use it for digging in the garden or opening oysters, get a garage-sale hatchèt knife for that!
Now what to do with the space you’ve just freed-up our your counter…
Alright, alright, alright, I know what you’re thinking. I’m saving the best for myself. I’m not sharing the source of my most sacred chef tool because I’m trying to make a more civilized version of the classic “foodie gift list.” Well, if you’re anything like I am, you want the best at all costs. Ok, I’m going to come out from behind the curtain and pass you the fire now.
The Don Andrade Personal Chef Knife—THIS IS THE MOST AMAZING HAND-FORGED KNIFE YOU WILL EVER OWN. Period.
Don’s knives are quite simply works of art that need to be seen and held to be appreciated. I honestly cannot do them any justice with words alone. They are 100% handmade, intensely sharp, perfectly balanced, and all-around just beautiful knives.
These are for the home-cook who has it all and wants the best. Want to see a grown-ass man cry? Then buckle down and have Don Andrade custom make a Damascus Scimitar for your Patio-daddy-o. You’ll never want to slice a brisket with anything else ever again. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Chef’s don’t use blocks and they never buy sets, so when people ask me what my favorite knife set is I tend to hem-and-haw until I come up with something that resembles a response. What I want to say is “I keep my best knives in a leather roll, my shitty knives in a drawer and none of them match.”
Jon Wilson made me my first leather knife roll. In fact, it was the first leather knife roll he ever made and it’s the only one I’ve ever purchased because, well, it's that durable. Like chef coats and aprons, knife rolls take a serious pounding in the kitchen. After tearing through 2 a year, I literally burned my last one and began looking for a more durable alternative. I scoured the internet looking for a military tool-kit roll that I could use for knife storage. The best I could find was an old jeep tool kit roll made from canvas with leather trim and brass hardware. It was a step in the right direction, but I knew the kitchen could kill the canvas, but that leather trim tho…
At the time Jon was making wallets and belts so I asked him if he could make me a leather knife roll. The perfect knife roll was born. Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Jon made the first handmade leather knife roll on the internet. Believe me, I searched in vain for weeks.
Not only was JAW Leather the first leather knife roll, but it’s still the best. Buy one, you won’t regret it.
The butcher block cutting board by John Boos. Possibly the world’s simplest and most practical kitchen tool. It’s stout, made in the USA, it'll last a lifetime with proper maintenance, and like a good cast-iron Dutch Oven (we’ll get there, don’t worry) it'll only get better with time.
This cutting board never leaves my counter. In fact, it give’s me another 2.25 inches of counter height, so not only is it a permanent fixture but it’s a comfortable starting point for everything I prepare.
For those of you who are worried about wood-grain harboring bacteria, when these boards are properly sealed they are actually anti-microbial. That being said, it does take a bit of time and attention to season these things and if you are still worried about cutting raw meat on a wood surface I totally get it. I use a plastic/polyethylene commercial cutting board exclusively for trimming raw fish and raw meats (this is a good one). Used less frequently than my Boos Block, as most of my cutting board prep is vegetables and cooked meats and it doesn’t get a permanent spot on my counter. So please, don’t give the foodie/cook in your family a $15 plastic NSF cutting board unless they are opening a restaurant, buy a Boos for your Boo.
Light, virtually indestructible, with a finish so smooth a sunny-side-up egg is just as comfortable sliding around on its surface as a double-cut pork chop. Seriously, The Field Company No.8 is the Tesla of cast-iron skillets.
The process is pretty straightforward - pour molten iron into a cast and turn out generations of cooking possibilities. At their worst, you can still put a mean crust on a ribeye over an open fire, but traditional cast-iron cookware is extremely heavy, difficult to maintain and tends not to be the first skillet people gravitate towards for a quick morning scramble. At their best, as in the case of the Field Company No.8 skillet, you can slip an over-easy out of the impossibly smooth surface and not even consider your busted Teflon relic for the job ever again.
This is the future of cast-iron. At $100, The Field Company has set a new standard for affordable, durable and comfortable cookware. Get your’s now and your grandchildren will thank you.
Ok, they call it a “French Oven” for some reason (I’m guessing it’s because of its sloping sides, reminiscent of the classic French style sautè pans) but don’t let the name pigeon-hole you into reserving this piece for coq au vin and bouillabaisse—although it will produce both with grace and make you look like a boss when you bring this beaut to the table.
Dutch ovens are an essential addition to any serious home-cooks arsenal and this version from Staub is my favorite. It’s beautiful, functional and can turn out virtually any cold weather classic. From soups to stews, braises, risottos and more, you will not be disappointed with this investment.
The enameled finish makes it easy to clean, while the heavy cast-iron core allows the vessel to retain heat like a nuclear reactor. Seriously, you’ve never been able to simmer so low, for so long.
Think stove-top braises, bone broth, pot au feu, chili, baked beans, pulled pork, fried chicken, even bread! That’s right, you can even use it to bake a pro-status crusty country-style loaf because the thick walls and lid create a virtually perfect hot ’n steamy environment for baking single loaves in your home oven. Move aside $20,000 bread ovens, this one pot will allow you to turn out sourdough loaves like Chad Robertson (If you don’t know, you really should. Here, allow me - Tartine Bread ).
What can you cook on a hot slab of cast-iron? Pretty much anything. Pancake breakfast for 10 has never been easier. Seriously, if you’re entertaining the family this holiday season and you plan on cooking 2 pounds of bacon, 14 eggs, 20 pancakes and a side of hash-browns take a lesson from every roadside diner worth its salt, get a griddle.
The Lodge Cast-iron Reversible Pro Grill/Griddle is designed to fit over two burners so you can actually have two different heat settings on either side. It’s hard to describe how versatile this simple stove-top addition is, it really needs to be experienced to believe. Basically, anything you can cook in a pan can be cooked on this griddle, but with three times the surface area allowing you to cook multiple things at once or for large groups with ease. You can sear a steak on one side, griddle asparagus in the middle and fry an egg on the other side. Dinner, done, one “pan”.
These roasting pans are durable and come in 3 sizes, which nest in each other to save space in the cupboards. Also, my personal favorite feature, the racks have a cut-out corner that makes it easier to access precious basting liquid, genius!
The pan with rack insert combo is also great for using as a resting rack or as a dry-aging/air-drying rack, which will come in handy if you are into cooking large cuts or big birds this holiday season! Did I mention using the roasting rack to oven-roast bacon to perfection? Just layer your slices on the rack and roast at 375° until your bacon is cooked the way you like it. This is an old-school pro-chef banquet move that will help you cook a large amount of bacon evenly while saving precious real-estate on the stove-top.
Tramontina is a Brazilian cookware company that manufactures, dollar for dollar, some of the best cookware sets I’ve ever used. Their all-stainless cookware products are super affordable, triple-ply (thick-walled for better heat distributing and retention), induction compatible, and have a lifetime warranty.
Santa Maria basically invented BBQ. Ok, maybe the first person to dangle meat over fire a few thousand years ago invented BBQ, but Santa Maria made it better. Not to be confused with “Southern Style” BBQ, Santa Maria style centers around grilling large cuts of meat like top-block or tri-tip over Red Oak embers. This is BBQ to me and Santa Maria BBQ Outfitters have been turning out some of the highest quality pits for years. You don’t need to be a Benevolent Elk or a caterer to appreciate a Santa Maria style pit.
Santa Maria BBQ Outfitters can build virtually any size and configuration of pit, but my favorite is the 36x24 Backyard model. This thing is built like a Sherman tank so you won't need to replace it every few years like most generic imported models. That’s right, I have a thing for heavy-duty cooking equipment. Anyway, this pit is the perfect size to cook for small groups or large parties, it's easy to maneuver because it comes on heavy-duty casters and it comes with a poker/grill brush combo. As if buying American made cooking equipment isn’t a good enough reason, the customer service at Santa Maria BBQ Outfitters is second to none.
If you’re looking for a new backyard grill and you’re ready to step it up this year, remember, great BBQ comes from a pit not a kettle and pellets are for shooting jack-rabbits not for cooking.
Here’s what I look for with a slow-cooker: durability, programmability, easy to use/see display and as few knobs as possible (even clean knobs get crusty eventually). Oh, I and prefer slow-cookers that are attractive because they tend to get a reserved spot on my countertop. The days of hardware store Black and Decker Darth Vader-looking slow-cookers went out the window around the same time I got married:) This is as "Darth Vader" as I can get away with these days.
The Ninja 3-In-1 Slow Cooker checks all of these boxes. It’s durable, easy to use and attractive. The convenience of being able to sear, sauté and braise in one programmable, plug-in, and countertop-friendly device that allows me to walk away from the cooking process for hours on end is well worth the investment.
Complete transparency -- I’ve killed six Kitchen Aid Stand Mixers and three grinder attachments. So why would I ever recommend this combo for a home-cook? Because the amount of abuse that these mixers sustained in my kitchens before finally blowing a gasket is astounding.
Not only would I say that these are still the most affordable, versatile and durable mixers on the market, but if you do manage to put several hundred pounds of meat per week through the grinder attachment and you end up breaking the attachment, luckily you are only out $50 for the grinder (you’ll spend $300 or more for an actual grinder and you can’t use it to mix cake batter).
Another reason I’ll be a Kitchen-Aid guy for life? Here’s a quick chef pro-tip. If you ever do experience the dreaded Kitchen-Aid “blown head gasket” and your mixer begins smoking and spewing hot gear grease out of the housing before grinding to a halt, don’t worry, you haven’t killed it yet. If this happens (you’ll know it when you see it) it’s actually the result of a broken gear, called the Worm Gear, that lives inside the housing of the machine. Given enough wear and tear, like daily professional kitten abuse, the worm gear is actually designed to break before overheating the motor.
You can buy the replacement part online Replacement Worm Gear with Tower and repair the gear with little more than a screwdriver, a hammer, and some gear grease. Here’s a really helpful video that can guide you through the procedure Worm Gear Replacement Video and another step by step guide from iFixit, iFixit Worm Gear Repair. Don’t be like me and throw away 5 mixers before you try this easy fix, it’s a bit messy but well worth the effort.
Most likely, you'll never need to replace the worm gear and this mixer will give you years of use. Seriously, my wife still uses her Grandmother's Kithcne Aid and it's over 50 years old!
I’ve used Cayson Designs of San Francisco for 10+ years. We used their chef coats and aprons in both of our restaurants and they’re still the only brand that I use.
After a decade of blowing through a half a dozen aprons and chef coats every year, I found Cayson chef coats while taking a class at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Saint Helena. I needed a clean coat for class, and the school just happened to sell Cayson coats in the gift shop. I recognized the high-quality craftsmanship immediately, as the industry standard for chef coats and aprons is 99% mass produced junk.
Cayson chef coats are soft, durable, fitted and get more comfortable with use. Their attention to detail and standard for high quality extends into all of their products and the aprons are no exception. It’s no wonder restaurants like Chez Panisse, Meadowood, State Bird Provisions and Blue Hill all choose Cayson.
Time and temperature are everything in the kitchen, so any device that allows me to monitor these important variables will always have a place in my kitchen, or pocket. I use both of these thermometers on a regular basis.
The pen thermometer I use for stove-top cooking and for quick checking temperatures like custards, milk, and bread. It’s accurate, simple to use, waterproof (read: actually cleanable with soap and water), and inexpensive. Check, check, check and check.
I use the digital probe thermometer mostly for outdoor cooking and/or oven roasting large roasts. When I don’t have the time to stand next to the grill for hours, monitor the oven every 30 minutes, or if my three year old would rather have me watch Wild Kratts then pay attention to dinner, this probe thermometer is my go to. You can set the temperature on the digital display, walk away with the remote, and an alarm will sound when the internal temperature of your meat has reached the target temperature. It’s stupid simple and accurate.
So that's about it folks, that's how I'm outfitting my desert island kitchen. Any one of these items would make a great gift this holiday season, so I hope you'll find some gift-giving inspiration in this list. Now, where to buy some meat...