Real Chefs Don’t Use Gadgets

Why a $40 nutmeg shaver means that cookware has gone too far

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I was looking at a potato masher a few minutes ago. With longing. I see this as a sign of spiritual rot. And yet I keep looking.

A new, ultra-luxe cookware store, Whisk, is now threatening to expand from its fashionably bohemian Brooklyn neighborhood to a far more upscale part of Manhattan, one not far from my office. I can’t stand the idea of a store that sells a $27 potato masher, or a $40 nutmeg shaver. The fact that these items are invariably sold to people who never cook makes me even madder. But look how beautiful they are! The masher seems to bend and swoosh, its gleaming steel in arching motion, a kind of Brancusi sculpture you can put in the dishwasher.

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But somebody needs to tell the world how silly this is. No one needs any of these objects. You won’t use them and you will actually feel bad about owning them. They are a daily reminder of the insufficiency of human enjoyments.

Here is what a person needs to cook well: two high quality pans, one big and one little, with lids; two corresponding pots; a roasting pan; a big chef’s knife and a small- to medium-sized one, like a santoku; a spatula; a big spoon; a big fork; a grater; a cutting board; and three or four other necessaries, depending on what you like to cook. For me, that means a microplane grater, for getting cheese onto spaghetti (though it would also do for nutmeg, if I ever needed to grate nutmeg, which obviously, nobody does.) It also means a heavy reinforced spatula, for pushing down hamburgers, and a can opener, for opening cans. That’s it. You may want three or four other things. But there should be a limit. And the limit should be what you actually use.

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Is that harsh? Too mean-spirited? I guess so. But we need to stop giving ourselves a pass on buying stuff we don’t need. My old colleague Elizabeth Cline just wrote a great book, Overdressed, about the way we shop for clothes; she looks at how often we buy clothes that we wear once, or sometimes not at all, and then keep for a while before throwing away to make room for more clothes we may or may not wear. I’ve never known a real cook who uses more than a few key implements, and my gut tells me that the people who buy the most kitchenware tend to cook the least. (This thought often strikes me when trying to make dinner on my crappy electric stove, while so many urban toffs keep six-burner Viking ranges in their kitchen for show.)

The rule ought to be that, if you don’t think you’ll use a tool at least twice a month, you shouldn’t buy it. And don’t buy them as gifts either unless you think those people will use them at least twice a month. Given the widening gap between people who can barely feed themselves and people so tenuously connected to cooking that they mount framed pictures behind their stoves, it seems wrong. And more than wrong, it seems lame, like buying a 500 hp BMW to drive around town in, or getting a $1,200 Tuscan calfskin messenger bag to carry tabloid magazines. I know people do these things, and I know it’s a free country, and I know a spare potato masher is not an act of profligacy as bad as building a 20-room McMansion for a family of four. But it’s in the same spirit. And that spirit has to be arrested.

It all starts with saying “no” to the potato masher.

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