What Is The Stuff?
Planning a dinner party is always a challenge. How many people? How many courses? What kinds of recipes? Drinks? Allergies and dislikes?
Once you’ve nailed down the basics (eight people; five courses; food is a little off the beaten path but nothing overly weird; wine and cocktails; pepper so compensate) you can then start taking note of what you need as far as ingredients and, what I like to call, “stuff”.
“Stuff”, to me, is basically kitchen equipment, flatware, tableware, glasses, etc. The challenge here is always cost. For some reason kitchen and cooking equipment is always seen as expensive when it really doesn’t have to be. And, if you really look around, for the most part, it isn’t.
The Problem (aka The Rant)
The problem I think is that the average person doesn’t really know what’s out there past what’s advertised to them. Couple that with the fact that most people don’t really know how to cook (and don’t have the time or the want to cook) and yes, kitchen stuff can be expensive.
For example, people have been told that they need a non-stick pan to cook in. NEED it*. They’re also told that copper is the best to distribute the heat. So you should buy a copper, non-stick pan to cook your eggs. And copper non-stick pans are fucking expensive.
The flip slide is that kitchen stuff can be super cheap. Not everyone can afford copper pans. But you can get non-stick pans at the local discount store. These pans are basically some weird aluminium with non-stick interior. They cost five bucks, will usually burn your food, and will last you about a year. If you’re lucky.
Average people are sold all kinds of shit. There are so many useless** single use contraptions out there it makes me sick. And the normal stuff has had so much crap attached to it that it’s guaranteed to (a) not work half the time and (b) completely break down in under a year.
For example, I’ve been waging a war with coffee makers for the longest time. What I want in a coffee maker is this:
- Make coffee.
- Don’t leak all over the pace when making the coffee.
- I like thermal carafes because they keep the coffee hot and fresh.
- Pre-set the coffee making is nice to have, but not a complete necessity.
Number three here is the big one. Coffee makers with thermal carafes are usually fucking expensive. And why? Oh because the only machines with thermal carafes also have built in bean grinders, different sensors for bean darkness and grind fineness, auto clean, breakfast makers, dog walkers, toilet bowl cleaners, and diaper changers. Oh, and they make coffee too.
Not too long ago I found a thermal carafe machine that promised to cover my 4 requirements. No more. No less. It was $160. So I bought it. Six months in, the lid is broken and it randomly decides to leak coffee all over the place. What the fuck gives?
Anthony Bourdain once did a show about basic cooking techniques. When demonstrating how to cut an onion with a knife he said: “See? Nice and simple. And right now there is some jerkoff on TV who is trying to sell you a contraption that will do what I just showed you.”
In short, you don’t need the fancy contraptions. You don’t need super duper expensive pans. You don’t need one-thing-does-all-super-kitchen-machine.
What people don’t realize is that your average, mid-to-near-high end restaurant uses equipment that’s somewhere in the middle; it ain’t exactly shit but it’s not super expensive, “top of the line” either.
What people need to do is stop shopping at BBB and Sears and other department stores. These are the places that want to sell you the “consumer products”. Avoid these places unless there is simply no other option. And believe me, normally, there are other options.
The Solution: Kitchen Supplies
Do a web search for “restaurant supply stores” in your city. Chances are, you’ll find at least one.
Seriously, restaurant supply stores are the bomb. You can get pretty much everything you need for pretty decent prices. That being said, I wouldn’t recommend buying everything at a supply store; I’m sure you won’t need to purchase plates by the dozen. But you can get necessities here like pots, tongs, mixing bowls, whisks, strainers, etc, etc cheaper than you would get them at Sears. And you know they’re at least decent quality because they’re the same shit they use in restaurants!
There is a restaurant supply store near me. It’s a ten minute bike ride away and it has everything. We recently headed over there to pick up some stainless steel mixing bowls and ended up walking out with the bowls (eight of them), a couple of kitchen tongs, some ramekins (medium and small), a vegetable peeler, and an industrial grade muffin tin. In total the bill was $50.00 or so. Now, count in the fact that the muffin tin was $24 on it’s own (but man, it’s built like a tank and does 24 muffins at once) and I consider that a very decent price.
You do have to be a little careful at places like this because they do have “normal” stuff and they’re priced like “normal” stuff. What you have to do is ignore all the fancy, moulded rubber/plastic shiny do-dads and keep an eye on the “pro” stuff. You’ll know it when you see it; you’ll remember some if it from your grandmothers kitchen.
Next up: thrift stores. I shit you not. You will have to do some digging, but you can find good, usable items in thrift stores. I found one of my favourite sauté pans at the local Value Village:
That is a 10″ stainless steel, Lagostina sauté pan I paid $6.00 for. Yes, you read that right: six bucks. This pan is amazing. It heats even, can go in the oven and, if you know what you’re doing, is completely non-stick. I use it for about 80% of my stove top frying/sauté-ing. Something like this can cost upwards to fifty dollars depending on make an model. Basically what you’re getting is top of the line cookware for thrift store prices.
You’ll also find grinders, hand blenders, and… well the list goes on. Like I said, you have to dig but there is gold out there.
Dinnerware is a tricky thing. Everyone has their own tastes. Me? I like white. I think white is classic and is a great canvas for plating. Yes, there are times where a darker plate or bowl would do nicely but most of the time white is where it’s at. This is why pretty much all of the restaurants you eat at serve their food on white dishes.
My favourite two places to get dinnerware are as follows:
Ikea is Ikea. I shouldn’t have to say much more here other than you can get a six seat setting for twenty five bucks.
Dollarama though? You all must think I’ve lost my mind. Well, maybe a little but check this shit out:
Piles and piles of plates, bowls, glassware, serving trays. Round, square, rectangle, weird shapes. All from between $1.00 and $4.00 each depending on size. Sure, some can be shitty but most are of a relatively decent quality. Peel the stickers off them and there are no logos; just pure white dishes. You will have to dig a little though each pile as there are inconstancies; some have small chips, some have noticeable bubbles in the finish etc but spend some time looking. Block off the aisle like an asshole if you have to and search.
Shallow Soup Bowl. $2.00
Salad Plate. $1.75
Neat looking plate/bowl/whatever. $3.00
Long story short, you can get good dinnerware for next to nothing. The same goes for flatware and glassware. Take your time and search out what you need at places you normally wouldn’t think to look for them.
When all is said and done everybody is different and has their own tastes and goals and their own wants and needs. Me? I like fancy food cooked to perfection and served on elegant dinnerware.
For that I go out to high end restaurants.
At home I like what could be called fancy but I’m happy with inexpensive elegance. When I cook dinner, we eat off of white plates from Ikea. Why would I buy anything more expensive? There are two small children in the house. Our set of 18 dishes has lost a few soldiers along the way and some of those that remain have chips and scratches. We replace our dishes, utensils, and pots and pans*** when needed not when we perceive to need them.
You’re not The French Laundry. You’re cooking for friends and family who are at dinner more to see you and enjoy your company than to fawn over expensive pots, plates, and kitchen gadgets.
Go forth. Cook, entertain, and enjoy.
Don’t be afraid to be cheap. And Bon Appétit.
* You don’t NEED non-stick pans. This is the biggest bunch of bullshit out there. While they certainly make things easier, you only really think you need non-stick if you’re too lazy to keep an eye on what you’re cooking. I know I sound like an asshole but seriously, if you can’t cook eggs in a stainless steel pan without them sticking, then you have bigger problems in life than your sticky eggs. Full disclosure: there are two, small non-stick pans in our kitchen and they get used quite a bit because they’re small and perfect for one or two egg omelettes. Make no mistake though; they’re on their last legs (one looks like it’s been run over by a small truck) and one they’re dead they’re being replaced by steel. we believe in using things until they are dead before replacing them. Note: We also have three cast iron pans which are awesome and get used quite regularly.
** Notice I said “useless”. A lot of cooking supplies are single use when you think of it. By useless I mean things like carrot peelers, electric muffin makers, or vegetable choppers.
*** When we were engaged 10 years ago, a group of our friends pitched in and got us a mid-range set of Lagostina steel cookware from Costco. They’re incredible and still going strong. I guess another point would be take care of your stuff and it will last you a good, long time.