Chefs tell us the one item in their kitchens they can't live without

Have you ever daydreamed about having a real chef's kitchen, with all the fancy appliances and gadgets of the pros? You may not be able to pull that off, but you can start stocking up on the items pro chefs rely on everyday. You probably even have some of these things in your kitchen right now. I spoke to chefs from all different places and who cook all different cuisines to find out the one thing in their kitchens they can't live without.

Microplane

Otto Borsich of Otto's Kitchen in Texas told me, "The microplane is a joy use. I would be lost without it. It's a time saver and a fun tool. I only have one wish concerning the microplane. I wish I invented it."

He shared all the different ways he uses his microplane on a daily basis: "It's crucial for citrus zest. I also use it to grate fresh nutmeg into baked goods. As a finishing tool for Parmesan, it creates a light airy mound worthy of that esteemed cheese topping off a pasta dish with flair."

Are you a garlic lover? He uses it for that, too. "It's a time saver with garlic, instead of smashing garlic and pulverizing it into a paste with the aid of kosher salt, fresh garlic cloves can be simply grated and added to the dish during the cooking process or on top raw for an extra bite, on a beef carpaccio for example, or fresh steamed string beans."

Blender

Do you love your blender? So do lots of chefs.

 Executive Chef Rachel Aronow, of The Alembic in San Francisco told me, "The one tool I could not live without is a Vitamix. It can be applied to accompany so many wonderful dishes, and in a pinch, it is my own personal MacGyver."

Executive Chef Chris Coleman of Stoke in Charlotte said, "Definitely my Vitamix blender. Anything that is pureed or emulsified (aioli, mayonnaise, hollandaise, salad dressings) would be difficult to make without one. It's a fairly indispensable piece of machinery in the modern kitchen — it's a huge time-saver."

Top Chef alum Brian Malarkey of San Diego loves his blender, too. He shared, "This piece of equipment is extremely universal. I use it at home to make ginger shots, smoothies, or if I'm hosting a party, fun blended cocktails. At my restaurants we use it for our antipastos, hollandaise sauces, soups — you name it."

Cast iron pan

Matt Greco, executive chef and owner of Salt Craft in Pleasanton, California relies on his cast iron pan as a trusted friend. He told me, "The one thing I can't live without is my cast iron pan. It gives the ideal slow heat to whatever you are cooking. Plus, nothing sticks and the pan is easy to clean."

He's had his cast iron pan forever. He said, "For me, it is mostly an emotional reason, as I have been cooking with the same pan for the past 20 years. It has made the journey with me from Texas, to New York City, to California. Now, I use it to cook my three sons their two favorite things: pancakes and lamb chops."

Steam kettle

Chef David Santos of Good Stock in Manhattan can't live without his professional-grade steam kettle. "While it may change from kitchen to kitchen, currently the item that I would find it extremely difficult to live without is our Groen 40-gallon Steam Kettle. It runs basically seven days a week making our stocks and bone broths. Without it, our job would be extremely difficult."

Chef's knife

Executive Chef, Rahaf Amer, of the Nashville-based wine bar and restaurant Salt & Vine told me he can't live without his chef's knife. "The one thing in my kitchen that I can't live without is a good, sharp, chef knife. You can do anything with a good knife."

He added, "It is so essential to have a good chef knife when cooking because half of the battle of making a dish is presentation and if you have a sharp knife then your knife cuts will be beautiful and perfect and that is key."

Measuring cups and spoons

Charlise Johnson, pastry chef and owner of Intimate Eats in Norcross, Georgia told me she absolutely loves her measuring cups and spoons. "I couldn't live without measuring cups and spoons. Baking is a science and everything needs to be precise. Without my measuring tools, my cakes may not rise like they should or they may not be the correct texture." She added, "Inaccuracies like too much or too little flour would ruin my work. Without proper measurements, my product wouldn't be consistent for my clients and I wouldn't be able to produce the quality Intimate Eats is known for."

Cast iron sauté pan

San Francisco's plant-based chef, Sascha Weiss of Project Juice uses his cast iron saute pan for so many things. He shared, "If you don't have one of these yet, invest in a good one — it's worth it and will pay for itself. From making latkes, to searing vegetables (treat them like meat for a nice sear), you can also cook deep dish pizza, make pancakes, and roast vegetables."

He suggested, "Get it screaming hot on the stove top, then finish it in the oven with ease. I love its ability to hold heat and it's naturally nonstick, without all the chemicals."

Kitchen tongs

You may not think of your kitchen tongs as particularly important, but Chandra Gilbert, executive chef at Gracias Madre in West Hollywood, California, loves his. He told me, "I could not live without kitchen tongs. They are so essential due to their versatility. I use them to do anything from tossing salads, turning pan-fried items to handling hot pans. They're truly extensions of my hands!"

Cake tester

Executive Chef Mike Ward of The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards in Livermore, California uses his cake tester for a lot more than just cake. He told me in our interview, "One might think to themselves, a cake tester? You mean a toothpick or wooden skewer. No. It is a thin elongated piece of stainless steel connected to a small piece of plastic or rubber. In our kitchen we use it to check all of our protein to determine when it is done — fish, steak, chicken — as well as the internal temperature of our vegetables to make sure they are hot before being served."

He went on, "We also use it for fried items, baked items, or pretty much anything we are cooking. The reason we use the cake tester is because it makes a very small incision on the item you want to test without damaging the product. Otherwise, you would have to use a knife and cut it open to check. Because of its small diameter, the metal conducts heat a very fast pace. Within seconds you will be able to know with a very high rate of accuracy if the food is at your desired doneness."   

Rolling pin

As the executive pastry chef at Westville in Manhattan, Meital Cohen relies on her rolling pin every day. She told me, "I can't live without my Italian marble rolling pin. I got it from my aunt as a gift years ago, when I started to bake professionally. I can tell you since then I have spent hundreds of hours in the kitchen with it, and the great Italian pin never fails. You may associate rolling pins with bread and pizza, but the art of smooth is vital in making cakes, pies, and cookies. My pin is my secret weapon."

Silicone spatula

You probably already have a silicone spatula in your kitchen. Chef J. Jackson of Washington, D.C. told me they're his most used tool. "Next to a knife, a silicone spatula is the single thing I can't live without in my kitchen. The spatula's versatility makes it an invaluable tool. While most people use it to get every drop out of the bowl, I find it's also useful to stir and flip food while I'm cooking. It is a gentle alternative to plastic cooking utensils on my best pots and pans, while giving me added control inside the dish."

Gluten-free chef Janet K agreed. She shared, "I cannot live without my silicone spatula. I always like a kitchen tool that is a multi-tasker. This little tool can stir a cake batter and scrape the bowl clean, make an omelet in a non-stick pan; it can scoop stir, scrape and even mash."

Meat thermometer

Southern chef Chase Guernsey shared the importance of having a good meat thermometer. "One item I cannot live without in my kitchen is a good meat thermometer. It's hard to produce perfect BBQ slow and low when you don't know the temperature that you're cooking. You don't know if it's getting over-cooked and drying out or if it's under-cooked and needs more time."

He added, "You are flying completely blind not having it. It's incredibly disappointing have under-cooked meat that doesn't shred easily — or worse — can make someone ill. You can skip the guesswork and stop serving under-cooked or over-cooked dishes with a good meat thermometer. Even when using your grill or oven, the only way to guarantee that your meat is properly cooked is your thermometer."

Sheet pans

Sharon Graves, chef and owner of BLVD Kitchen and Mom in the Mail in Sherman Oaks, California told me, "For my baking business, Mom in the Mail, I have about ten of the full-sized sheet pans either in the oven or in the freezer at all times. They are loaded down with homemade cookies."

Graves uses them at her other restaurant, too. She went on, "At BLVD Kitchen, they are used for roasting vegetables and organizing and holding ingredients. With a wire cooling rack, you have the perfect platform for broiling fish and chicken. You can make an entire meal on a sheet pan, letting the oven do all of the work with almost zero clean up."

They're also cheap: "Best of all, a good one will cost you less than $10!"

Silicone mats

Justin Iso, the pastry chef who runs the award-winning website Chef Iso, is thankful for his silicone mats. He told me,  "I cannot live without my Silpat silicone mats! Trying to bake without them is like baking on hard mode. They provide a total nonstick surface and will never let any of my pastries burn. They've really become an industry standard for professional bakers — for good reason. The best part is that I can just wash them off and reuse them indefinitely."

Garlic press

Are you garlic fan? Artisan Foodworks executive chef Alexa Lemley is. She told me, "My Kuhn Rikon garlic press is indispensable in the kitchen. My wife and I love garlic. The flavor and health benefits of fresh garlic are why it is a must-have ingredient in my favorite dishes. And only freshly pressed garlic will do. Over the years, I've killed many garlic presses. Then I found the Kuhn Rikon garlic press. It is indestructible and easy to clean."

Recipe book

Michael Morelli, the executive chef of the Spa Mirbeau, in Albany, New York shared an interesting must-have item: his recipe book. He told me, "Although there are obvious utensils we need to do our jobs properly — knives, sauté pans, etc.— I would have to say that the one indispensable item in my kitchen is the recipe book."

He elaborated, "Chefs are often thought of as creative cooks who invent dishes as they go along. Actually, the opposite is true. Each dish is very carefully thought out. Each recipe for every component of the dish is tested and tested again. The elements of flavor, color, ingredients, preparation time and presentation are all evaluated and balanced."

Kosher salt

Chef Mike Dalton, executive chef for the D'Amico & Partners Italian restaurants in Naples, Florida and the Twin Cities area shared a simple kitchen must-have: kosher salt.

He told me, "Some foods come with natural salt, for example, items from the sea and things that are aged or cured. For everything else, we need to give it some flavor and that comes through seasoning. Salt is the one constant in the seasoning category."

But, while salt is abundant, it's not always easy to use it right. Dalton continued, "Salt is a difficult ingredient to master not just for a beginning chef, but also for chefs that have experience. You have to be careful not to over-salt because it enhances most dishes, but can also ruin your pallet if it is misused."

Spanish olive oil

Executive Chef Owner Mat Schuster of Canela Bistro & Wine Bar in San Francisco is a big fan of Spanish olive oil. He explained, "I can't live without pure Spanish olive oil. It is easy to find extra virgin olive oil but pure Spanish olive oil is much harder to find. It has a higher smoking point than extra virgin olive oil and because of this, we use it for all our searing and sautéing in our kitchen. Pure Spanish olive oil adds authentic flavor to our dishes that are inspired by traditional Spanish flavors."