We Asked Local Chefs Which Kitchen Tools They Can’t Live Without

Plus, their knife tips and where to buy everything.

8 Top Tools

What gadgets do pro chefs like to have in their home kitchens? They told us.

Chef Dan Van Rite’s Magnalite pan has seen a lot of chilis, vegetable curries, braised chicken thighs, et al in the last 25-plus years. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
Chef Dan Van Rite’s Magnalite pan has seen a lot of chilis, vegetable curries, braised chicken thighs, et al in the last 25-plus years. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.


➞ A good pan: Find the piece that works for multiple applications. Hinterland’s Dan Van Rite still cooks with the Magnalite pan he’s had since 10th grade. The “sturdy” stockpot “big enough to boil pasta” is what works for Ardent’s Matt Haase. And University Club’s Paul Funk uses Lodge cast-iron “all the time.”

➞ Y peeler: The orientation of the blade makes it faster to work with, it adapts well to small, delicate shaving, and it’s cheap. The Kuhn Rikon Y peeler retails for $4.

➞ A good knife: But before you throw down $400 on a Japanese knife, note that chefs don’t necessarily spend copious coin on knives.

➞ Mortar and pestle: To grind up spices, but a coffee grinder also works.

➞ Whisk: Get the right whisk for the right job (thin wires for egg whites; stiffer ones for batters). Chefs like Matfer Bourgeat whisks, which have springs designed to not twist and handles that are heat-resistant and waterproof.

➞ Hardwood cutting board: Hinterland’s Van Rite uses a thick wooden board by John Boos. University Club’s Funk likes a maple board. With any board (wooden, plastic, acrylic), clean it well and avoid cross-contaminating foods.

➞ Plastic pint and quart containers: Cheap, reusable ones, for storing prepped vegetables, herbs, sauces, etc. Label them with painter’s tape and a Sharpie.

➞ A good spoon: Ardent’s Haase doesn’t underestimate the usefulness of a long-handled wooden spoon – or rather, many of them. If you want to splurge on a comfortably handled spoon for saucing a plate or basting a roast, there’s the Gray Kunz $10 stainless steel sauce spoon.

 Where to Shop

Which kitchen supply store you need depends on, well, you.

Become a better baker: Supplies to help you create sweet treats that rival anything you see on “Cake Boss” cram Cook’s Cake Decorating & Candy Supplies (7321 W. Greenfield Ave.). No matter the occasion, you’ll find decorations to suit the theme. The staff will also point you to molds, cutouts and décor to help create a perfect birthday cake.

Start raising a Junior MasterChef: Need an oven that cooks frozen pizza in two minutes? Pop into Superior Equipment & Supply (4550 S. Brust Ave., St. Francis) for equipment used in commercial kitchens. Home cooks can score deals on Taylor digital thermometers, Badgers-themed pastas and more. The kid’s corner and youth cooking classes are great resources for your budding chef.

Find innovative design: Bartolotta Restaurant Group and MillerCoors are just two of the F&B companies that make regular visits to Boelter Superstore (4200 N. Port Washington Rd.). The sleek showroom is an altar to all things cooking with Wüsthof knives, Emile Henry cookware and Vollrath pans lining the shelves. Ask about the sports-themed barware for your mancave or tailgate session.

Get a dose of the Old World with your whisk: The retro Brewers Hill building adds to the allure of Fein Brothers (2007 N. Martin Luther King Dr.). It’s also a testament to FB’s longevity – 86 years in business. Walking through the rows of Dexter-Russell knives and 120-quart(!) pots, it seems the staff is on a first-name basis with nearly every customer. We’re not the only ones drawn to the charm here. 

Knife Lessons

Here’s what you need to know about blades before you buy.

Price: Should you buy a 14-piece set or three inexpensive, quality knives? The latter. And unless you’re a sushi chef, you don’t need to invest in top-of-the-line Japanese knives. Brian Reed, pastry chef at Sanford Restaurant, likes the basic chef’s knife made by Swiss brand Victorinox Forschner (which also gets props from University Club’s Paul Funk). “Six to 7 inches is plenty of blade,” Reed says. Anything bigger would be “cumbersome.” Start with value, he adds, then “prove to yourself that you need better quality.”

Use: Jack Kaestner, a culinary instructor at MATC, whittles down the average cook’s needs to three knives: chef’s, paring and serrated. He suggests getting your hands involved by visiting a cookware store and holding the knives to see “how they feel.” La Merenda’s Peter Sandroni is comfortable with his small, heavy paring knife. “You can do big work [like butchering a chicken] on a small knife, but not small work on a big knife.”

Comfort: How it feels in the hand might be more significant to a chef, who’s grasping it for hours every day, and yet “weight and balance are important” for anyone, says Sanford owner/executive chef Justin Aprahamian.

Blade: Carbon steel can hold a sharp edge, but it has drawbacks. It rusts easily (a coat of mineral oil before storing the knife is believed to fight rusting), needs constant maintenance and “can’t take a beating,” as Sanford’s Reed puts it. Stainless steel rates high on durability and value.

Care: Wash your knives by hand (avoid the dishwasher) and store them, if not in a wooden block, then a plastic sleeve guard, and lay them flat in a drawer, advises Ben Minkin, co-owner of kitchen supply store Fein Brothers. But don’t layer knives on top of each other. That can compromise the blade, Minkin says. The two tools every knife owner should have are a hand-drawn knife sharpener and a honing steel. With the steel, “one or two swipes at a 20-degree angle every day” will “extend the life of the knife,” says MATC’s Kaestner.

The Epicure’s Guide to Milwaukee

This story is part of The Epicure’s Guide to Milwaukee feature in our March, 2015 issue. Click to read the rest of the guide.

The Epicure's Guide to Milwaukee

‘The Epicure’s Guide to Milwaukee’ is the cover story for the March, 2015, issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.