Image above: Travis McShane grates cheese. Photo by Jenn Duncan.
IF YOU’VE COOKED A FEW MEALS IN A KITCHEN or poured a few drinks at a home bar lately—and let’s be honest, you definitely have—you probably have a favorite tool. It might be a high-tech toy, like that new sous vide cooker, or maybe it’s just a really efficient knife. Whatever your pick, it’s the one thing you’re certain you can’t live without when you’re in your culinary zone.
Needless to say, Houston’s top chefs and beverage professionals have their own favorites, and many of them were sheltering in place recently, too. So we asked 10 of them to recommend the tools they love most that could appeal to home cooks, from vacuum sealers to sauce spoons. At a range of price points from minor investment to just a few bucks, they make great gift ideas for the passionate chef in your life. Even if that chef is you.
Microplane Gourmet Series Fine Cheese Grater
Travis McShane—Executive chef/owner, Ostia
McShane, who grew up in Kingwood and worked for a decade under celebrity NYC chef Jonathan Waxman before returning home to open his fine Italian restaurant in Montrose this fall, has tested his share of graters. Ultimately he appreciates the versatility of this item from Microplane. “This is the one for if you want garlic grated, or ginger,” he says. “If I have all the time in the world, I would do the mortar and pestle, but I don’t—so this is such a great tool.”
Other foods perfect for the fine cheese grater include lemons for zesting, truffles, chocolate, and, of course, parmesan to flavor pasta. And Microplane—an Arkansas-based company that only manufactured woodworking tools until, according to legend, a Canadian cook in 1994 realized her husband’s Microplane rasp could be used to zest an orange—also sells coarser graters and shavers more suitable for potatoes and root vegetables. “It’s kind of nice to have a variety of them for whatever application you want,” says McShane.
From $16.99 | microplane.com
Shradha Trading Sandwich Hand Toaster
Anita Jaisinghani—Executive Chef/Owner, Pondicheri
Ever wonder how the Mumbai Toaster sandwich at this James Beard–nominated chef’s restaurant comes out of the kitchen so perfectly clasped together? With crispy edges on the two slices of house-made brioche and a loaded center of Indian-produced, cheddar-like canned Amul cheese, a fried egg, and tangy cilantro chutney, looking as if it has been more assembled than made? It’s all thanks to the beloved chef’s hand toaster, an item most people in the US have never heard of but just about every cook in India owns.
“They make these sandwiches on the street in Mumbai, right with the vegetables and cheese,” says Jaisinghani. “It’s just a very common thing in India; I have one at home.”
To use it, place your sandwich in the press, close it, and hold it over a gas stove burner or a barbecue grill until the insides have reached the desired level of gooiness. The toaster is designed to press the sandwich edges together and seal them with the melted cheese while lightly warming its center, a process that takes just three minutes max. Jaisinghani has been utilizing these toasters at her award-winning restaurant for years, but on her own time she keeps her creations simple, slipping leftover bites of tomatoes, chunks of cheese, and pickled vegetables inside slices of fresh-baked Pullman loaves before putting the toaster on.
“Once a week I use it at home,” she says. “My kids use it much more.”
From $21.21 | amazon.com
VacSmart Vacuum Sealer
Erin Smith—Chef/Co-owner, Feges BBQ
Smith became a partisan in the vacuum sealer revolution while working under the famed chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author Thomas Keller at New York’s Per Se. “Not many people understood what was happening, and why you’d use it,” says Smith, who started her Greenway Plaza–based barbecue spot with her husband, Patrick, and will be expanding to Spring Branch in 2021. “But you learn so much just about how to improve technique and consistency, and how to create more efficiencies.”
The VacSmart sealer she and Patrick bought is perfect for when they’re transporting food to off-site events. They simply put prepared victuals, such as their mouthwatering brisket, into a plastic bag, then fit the bag into the sealer’s chamber before shutting the lid. The sealer sucks all the air out of the bag and prints a label with storage information, and the food is kept fresh and contained with no spills.
Smith recommends the MV 31 countertop version for home cooks: pre- prepared, sealed meals can be stored in the freezer for weeks. When you’re ready to eat, just drop the bag into simmering water—usually for about 10 to 15 minutes, though times will vary based on the food—pull it out, cut it open, and enjoy.
From $3,264 | vac-smart.com
Vitamix E310 Series
Martin Weaver—Chef/Founder, Whatever Fresh
For Weaver, a health-conscious chef who has been striving to bring farm-fresh produce to Houstonians through his plant-based-food concept (staging at Bravery Chef Hall this summer), a blender is a big deal. “I can’t think of how many times I have cooked at people’s houses, and I’ve had to change what I’m preparing just because the blender they have is subpar,” says Weaver.
When Weaver has his druthers, he always goes for the Vitamix, and with good reason. The blender has been a part of the culinary landscape for roughly a century, starting when a Polish immigrant patented the first blender design back in 1922, but it took an Ohio-based kitchen appliance salesman named William Barnard to perfect it with the Vitamix.
Barnard saw a blender at a 1937 trade-show and decided he could do better; within a little over a decade, the whole country knew about the Vitamix. (This is due partly to the blender’s quality and partly to Barnard’s son, who appeared in one of the first infomercials in TV history in 1949.)
For decades since, Vitamix blenders have been in a class by themselves, thanks to their versatility—some models allow you to do everything from kneading dough to making ice cream—and the sheer force of the 2HP engine that can whip up your pumpkin soup so fast it will come out of the blender hot. “There really are a ton of things that you can execute with a high-quality blender,” says Weaver. “And there isn’t a company on the market that can touch the quality of a Vitamix blender.”
There are plenty of Vitamix models to choose from, but for the home cook, the classic E310 is the perfect size, Weaver says, with its 48-ounce container large enough to hold medium batches for everyday meals. He adds: “For those who just use it for smoothies, go with the 7500 series, which keeps a low profile.”
From $349.95 | vitamix.com
Robot-Coupe R2N CLR Continuous Feed Combination Food Processor
Gabriel Medina—Executive Chef/Co-founder, Click Virtual Food Hall
It is a truth universally acknowledged that any would-be chef must have an excellent food processor. While most people think this means buying a Cuisinart, Medina swears by the Robot-Coupe R2N CLR.
Food processors have been essential kitchen gadgets since they first hit the market in post–World War II Europe, and Medina has tried just about every brand out there in his 14 years in the food industry. But when he and his co-founder were setting up Click, a delivery- and takeout-only virtual food hall—Medina isn’t a soothsayer; this concept opened in summer 2019, well before anyone had even heard of Covid-19— it was clear that they’d be investing in one of these French-made machines. All of the Robot-Coupe models are celebrated, but Medina went with the R2N CLR over other Robot-Coupe processors for its utility.
“This particular model does everything I need, from chopping garlic to shredding cheese,” says Medina, who adds that it’s great for dicing potatoes, slicing carrots, and processing chickpeas for falafel. He even blends batter for cakes with the processor, all inside his 800-square-foot kitchen. “It really saves time if you have to make bulk items, too,” he says.
Plus, even though this food processor is fairly compact, it can go for hours without overheating, and cleanup is a snap because the compartment doesn’t have little nooks where food waste can get trapped. Its size makes it great for home cooks as well. Pro tip from Medina: “Try to get the metal container,” he says, “because the plastic cracks over time.”
From $1,162 | robot-coupe.com
Gray Kunz Spoons
Ryan Lachaine—Executive Chef/Owner, Riel
The kitchen setup at Montrose restaurant Riel is pretty simple. “We don’t use a lot of gadgets back here. It’s bare bones,” says Lachaine, who specializes in casual fare inflected by his French Canadian and Ukrainian roots. “But one of the things that’s a staple in my kitchen are those sauce spoons.”
They aren’t just any spoons. Designed by famed four-star chef Gray Kunz himself, these utensils were once available only to those who worked in his kitchens. When you hold a Gray Kunz spoon, you’ll notice that the bowl of the utensil is larger, while the handle will be shorter and narrower. Small adjustments, but Lachaine swears that they help him be quicker and more precise when basting butter on steaks and moving vegetables and fish about in pans, qualifying the spoons as key ingredients in dishes that have delighted Houstonians since Riel opened in 2017.
Lachaine says he also just likes how they feel in his hands, well-balanced and comfortable to hold. For the past decade he’s been buying the classic 9-inch sauce spoons, the slightly smaller 7.5-inch sauce spoons, and slotted spoons, reordering anytime he loses one.
“I’ve been in very few kitchens where you don’t see people who have them,” he says. “We’re kind of creatures of habit. We do the same thing every day. I want that spoon in my hand.”
From $11.90 | jbprince.com
Café Countertop Convection Microwave Oven
Christine Ha—Executive Chef/Owner, The Blind Goat
Even a microwave oven can make a big difference for the Season Three MasterChef champion, who is legally blind because of an autoimmune condition called neuromyelitis optica. Her husband and business partner, John Suh, recently bought for their home this combination microwave and convection oven, which has Bluetooth capability and its own smartphone app.
Once Ha and Suh had it installed and connected to Wi-Fi, she found she could control the 1,000-watt microwave with both her smartphone and a smart home device. That means instead of pressing buttons, Ha can simply tell Alexa to reheat the soup for three minutes, or if she’s making a pizza—or some other delicious concoction that has a relatively long cooking time—she’ll receive a phone notification telling her when it’s finished.
The microwave even has built-in sensors that detect when that bag of popcorn is getting too much heat or that soup needs more time to cook. That’s key for Ha, as she’s always looking to reduce the number of steps she’s taking in her home. But she thinks just about any chef can appreciate minimizing kitchen worries. “I’m all about convenience,” she says. “I’m not trying to make my life harder.”
From $799 | cafeappliances.com
Kiwi Pro Slice Peeler
Nicole Routhier—Executive Chef, Le Colonial
Back in 2005, on a trip through both Cambodia and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, Routhier noticed the street vendors quickly shredding green mango with a 10-inch-long, handheld blue peeler. She bought one of these Kiwi Pro Slice peelers for about $1, and it changed the way she cooked.
“I know chefs are crazy about tools, but 90 percent of the time it’s like, ‘Well, what else can I use this for?’” she says. “This one, I use it on a daily basis, and every time I find new ways of using it.”
The Thai company Kiwi, which is known primarily for producing ultra-sharp knives, is behind this instrument that does everything: It juliennes carrots and tougher root vegetables for salads and sides, and if you turn it over it can cut a potato into a waffle shape. Routhier loves it so much that, on a visit to Thailand in 2016—just before opening Le Colonial, her River Oaks restaurant focused on the French influences on Vietnamese cuisine—she bought about a dozen at local markets to give to her line cooks and chef friends. These particular souvenirs were a hit when she came back. “They make fantastic gifts,” Routhier affirms, “and people love you for it.”
From $8.39 | importfood.com
Repour Wine Saver
Marcus Gausepohl—Wine Director, Brennan’s of Houston
When wine professionals want to keep wine fresh after opening a bottle, they have only a few options. “Many people are familiar with the preservation system Coravin, which injects argon into the wine” while extracting it from the bottle, says Gausepohl, who was installed in 2016 as the wine director at Brennan’s, the iconic Gulf Coast restaurant that has been celebrating special occasions with Houstonians since 1967.
Gausepohl prefers Repour. While even a starter Coravin system will cost about $200, not counting the required accessories, Repour runs less than $2 per stopper, and nothing gets added to the vino. “And it’s a much simpler process, and available from Amazon,” he contends. “If you’re not going to drink through the bottle, it’s kind of a no-brainer.”
Repour is easy to use: Peel the top, and cap your open 750ml bottle of wine with it, pushing down aggressively. Repour tops are designed to remove the oxygen from the bottle and absorb it in the cap, keeping the wine as fresh as it was when you first uncorked it. Each stopper is meant to be used for one bottle alone, but since it’s made of 100-percent recyclable materials, it can go out with the bottles and cans.
From $17.99 for 10 | repour.com
OnTheRocks Ice Cube Tray and Box
Cuc Lam—Executive Chef, Yelo
Lam, who this fall is opening an all- day Vietnamese diner in Katy Asia Town, admits that when cooking, she’s not the person to be working with the cutting edge of kitchen technology—a sharp knife and a solid cutting board suit her purposes just fine. But when she’s mixing up a cocktail at home after a long day in the kitchen, it’s a different story—and she swears by this system.
“We take cocktails very seriously at home,” says Lam. Her partner, Josh Armendariz, regularly researches bar tools for their home, and while they have a few whiskey ice makers, they find that OnTheRocks, which they started using during the Covid-19 quarantine in April, freezes out the rest.
It’s simple to use. Just fill the box with warm water, lower it into the mold, and then freeze it for 24 hours; the box-inside-tray system keeps the warm water insulated so the air in the freezer can’t get into your ice. Unlike the typical ice that comes out of your freezer, which always has murky white stuff at the center of each cube, ice squares formed by OnTheRocks are crystal clear, melt slowly and steadily, and won’t leave a funky, tap-water aftertaste in your old fashioned, Lam promises.