Thursday, December 20, 2007

tools of the trade

I have a drawer in my kitchen full of gadgets and tools alone. It's been sitting open for a few weeks now, well, simply because it's too full to close! In it there are rolling pins, donut cutters, pastry cutters, box graters, zesters and peelers, a microplane, an egg slicer, an egg topper, an egg poacher, a cherry pitter, whisks and funnels, piping tips and squeeze bottles... the list is never-ending. All these objects to make cooking (and life) presumably easier, and my kitchen that much more cluttered. It's a real sickness I tell you; I can never get enough.

In stark contrast, my grandfather, the great chef of the family works with an army of much humbler means. There are three, count them 3!, knives in his block, a cleaver, a straight smaller chef's knife, and a paring knife. Add a pair of well seasoned kitchen shears and chopsticks, and his repertoire is complete. All this leads to me to ask the question: do great cooks truly need all those hyped up tools and gadgets? Does the equipment make the chef? I personally, would like to believe so, or else all the money I've spent on that one drawer alone was in naught. Much to my chagrin, I must admit perhaps I was wrong, and I certainly must concede to the old saying that the only tools a good cook needs are the ones on the ends of his arms. Or in other terms, those within arms reach, and certainly not buried at the bottom of a modern gadgetry drawer.

My grandfather is part of the old-school way of cooking, the part that I admire and aspire to be one day. You know, no recipes, no timers, no Kitchen-aids, just a wok and a steamer will just about do. He laughs when he sees me writing down certain measurements or asks how much soy sauce or cooking wine goes into a dish. "Just enough!" he'll always retort. Well, what good does that do me? (I've been getting pretty good now about guesstimating his precise measurements.) To someone like him who's cooked these same dishes for a lifetime now, the ingredients and amounts are memorized in the flick of a wrist, a pinch between the fingers, and a glance at the consistency of a sauce. Now, whenever I try this at home, the result is edible, but vastly different. I need my microplane! I like easy-to-follow recipes. But only sometimes. And I have been getting very good at winging certain things. It comes down to time and practice. Now that I feel confidently armed with a battalion of new age kitchen tools, I'm ready to venture into my grandfather's world, sparse may it be, but rewarding and ever so valuable to a young cook in the long run.