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If you're a home cook who aspires to elevate your gourmet game but feel like something is holding you back, the blame more than likely rests on your kitchen. If only you had the right tools of the trade, you tell yourself, you could serve up a feast that friends would talk about for years to come. Well, guess what? Creating a chef's kitchen at home may be easier than spatchcocking a chicken.
We asked professional chefs to share their insight into which kitchen essentials they absolutely can't live without. If you're looking to upgrade the place where the culinary magic happens, take their advice and do it strategically.
Cookware trumps cabinetry
"Top Chef" star Fabio Viviani, who owns restaurants in California and Chicago, says when homeowners choose to renovate a kitchen they often make the mistake of putting their money into new cabinetry while refurbishing would suffice. Rather than blowing a bundle on cosmetic fixes, he suggests investing in appliances.
"Your Thanksgiving turkey is going to taste better with a nice oven rather than with nice cabinets," he jokes. "You need at least a four-burner stove so you can saut, fry, and sear at the same time. Then, you need a convection oven, and believe it or not, there are a lot of short cuts that can be done using a good microwave."
The chef, who grew up in Florence and began working in a bakery at age 11, also says small counter appliances like a blender, food processor, and stand mixer are a must -- preferably within arm's reach.
"I love to have all my appliances on my counter, but my wife hides them in the cabinet because she hates clutter," he says. "The struggle is real."
Function and flow
For chef Ehren Ryan, owner of Common Lot in Millburn, NJ, a true chef's kitchen is all about function and fluid movement.
"The major functional areas such as the cooktop, ovens, counter space for preparation, fridge, and freezer all have to be placed close together, and the area between them needs to flow well," he says. "If your fridge is a long walk away from where you are preparing the food, then you will end up hating your kitchen because those extra steps it takes to get there all add up."
Ryan, whose eatery features an open kitchen with a tasting table, says he prefers to keep the countertops free and clear so he has as much room to prepare as possible. But if there's one amenity he'd prefer not to go without, it's a warming drawer.
"I like that a warming drawer will heat the plates to serve on and keep food warm without drying it out," explains the chef who was raised in Australia and honed his skills in some of Europe's Michelin-starred restaurants. "It works well in proofing bread, and the newer models now also feature a slow cooking function."
Sharpen your tools
Award-winning chef C.J. Reycraft, owner of Amuse in Westfield, NJ, says many times his customers ask: "What are some things I can add to my kitchen to create more restaurant-style dishes?"
"First and foremost, a good chef's knife and paring knife are essential tools for any kitchen," says the French Culinary Institute graduate. "Make sure you go to a store where you can handle them and see what fits your hand and eye the best."
Second, get a knife sharpener and diamond steel to keep your knives razor-sharp. "A sharp knife is a safe knife," he says. A steel is used to keep the burr on your knife's edge smooth and centered; the sharpener is used to grind and put a new edge on your knife. There are many types of sharpeners, Reycraft says. "For the home chef, I recommend a handheld sharpener with two types of stones: one coarse diamond for grinding and one ceramic for polishing."
Love your soups, sauces, and salad dressings? Reycraft recommends a high-powered blender, "like a Ninja or Vitamix," which "can help you make the most velvety soups and perfectly emulsified vinaigrettes."
"If you're looking for a simple but very useful permanent fixture to add to your home kitchen, have your plumber add a faucet by your cooking surface. Being able to fill pots right on top of the stove saves time and energy. It is one of the only things I wish I had added to my kitchen at Amuse," he says. "It would make filling stockpots much more efficient."
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