If Anna Ross’ trusty “cupcake apron” were a recipe in her pastry-loving kitchen, it would be equal parts functional and lucky charm with a dash of whimsy. She has worn the pink-trim apron that’s dotted with tiny cherry-topped chocolate cupcakes since her high school days.
“I wore that apron almost every day in high school and again when I opened up my business from home. Lots of treats have been baked in that thing!” says Ross, who is pastry chef and owner of Anna Bakes, an indie bakery business in West Palm Beach. “The apron will always remind me of my high school baking days as well as the start of Anna Bakes.”
Devoted cooks like Ross have their kitchen secrets, habits and go-to gadgets. That cupcake apron may be part of Ross’ baking ritual, but the tool that gives her super powers is her expandable pastry cutter — one that can slice straight, perfectly parallel lines in tricky pastry dough.
“I would be lost without my accordion cutter!” says Ross, who turns 26 this month. “It’s 10 times more time-effective in marking bars and brownies than a ruler and knife, when cutting equal slices.”
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Heirloom spoon in the ghost kitchen
West Palm Beach chef Emerson Frisbie finds old-timey magic in his commercial kitchen whenever he reaches for the quenelle spoon — the kind that makes delicate ovals of sweet or savory creams or fluffs — that he inherited from his grandmother.
“It’s a small silver spoon that I use for plating, scooping quenelles and tasting. It’s always in my bain-marie (double-boiler pot),” says Frisbie. “Every time I use my grandmother’s spoon to taste a sauce. I remember sitting in her kitchen as a child.”
Frisbie is chef at Palm Beach Meats gourmet shop and pop-up venue. He also leads a string of delivery-only food operations and is executive chef of a Friday night dinner series called Clandestine. One might imagine his commercial kitchen is stocked with all kinds of gadgetry.
Not so much for his delivery-only operations, Frisbie says.
“I operate six ghost kitchens during the week and those menus rely less on gadgets,” he says. “My day-to-day cooking isn’t very technical and, that being said, I don’t necessarily use many gadgets.”
But cooking for his dinner series, which Frisbie presents as a chef tasting concept, is a different story. It “requires many tools and small contraptions to execute a much higher level fine dining menu,” he says.
First tool is favorite
Speaking of fine-dining skills, steakhouse chef Jamie Steinbrecher is blunt when talking about the most whetted instrument in his cooking arsenal: “A very sharp chef’s knife.”
“It’s definitely the first tool I invested in as a young cook, and it’s a staple in any chef’s kit,” says Steinbrecher, executive chef at Jupiter’s new Lewis Steakhouse and previously the longtime executive chef at its sister restaurant Okeechobee Steakhouse. “Having a lot of different tools is definitely an advantage, but a sharp knife is invaluable.”
He quips: “That’s why it’s called a ‘knife roll’ [protective case]not a ‘gadget roll.’”
Steinbrecher’s go-to tools may be as classically inspired as his menus, but he says he’s always up for culinary adventures.
“Doing new stuff is fun and exciting,” he says. “My favorite dish to cook anytime, with any gadget or technique, is anything I haven’t made before.”
Adventures in ancient grains
Striking a balance between classic and adventurous, local corporate chef and restaurateur Lisabet Summa says she’s quite “in love” with a new kitchen tool — the Tribest-brand grain mill she uses when making rustic breads and other baked goods.
“It’s not the most common thing that you think of in the kitchen. But it’s absolutely beautiful — all wood, except for the round stones inside,” says Summa, the corporate culinary director at the Big Time Restaurant Group.
At work, Summa oversees the kitchens of the group’s six restaurants — Elisabetta’s Ristorante (named after Summa’s childhood nickname), City Cellar, Louie Bossi’s, Rocco’s Tacos, City Oyster and Sushi Bar, Grease and Big City Tavern. At home in West Palm Beach, her cooking is inspired by her travels as well as by fancies gathered from her massive collection of cookbooks.
Lately, those fancies have been all about interesting grains.
“I’ve been making whole-grain breads. I buy the whole wheat or the rye kernels and grind my own flour,” says Summa. “I love the freshness of the whole milled grain.”
The countertop grain mill is “real easy to use,” she says. “It adds character to your baked goods.”
For example, Summa enjoys making 100% rye flour with her mill. She adds spices like cardamom or coriander to it before making bread with it.
“I love it toasted with European butter and topped with smoked salmon,” she says. “It stays fresh and it’s so moist.”
Keeping it ‘Old School’
Making bread is life for French-trained master baker Billy Himmelrich, who has owned and operated Old School Bakery in Delray Beach for more than two decades. High-end restaurants rely on him for authentic, artisanal loaves. Local anti-hunger efforts, including the Palm Beach County Food Bank, are nourished by his generosity, as Himmelrich donates much of his leftover bread.
But his go-to kitchen tool, a French-made, aluminum non-stick frying pan, is not related to bread-making. It is, however, related to the memories that nourish his own soul.
“This was the ‘go-to’ pan when I was learning to cook in Burgundy in the late ’80s. I can close my eyes and see the cèpes (mushrooms) and river perch on the cooktop,” says Himmelrich, who describes himself as “the opposite of gadget-driven and 100% old school, obviously.”
Trained at the Ritz-Escoffier culinary school in Paris, Himmelrich sharpened his techniques while working at Michelin three-starred restaurants in France. Still today, he reaches for his Matfer-brand frying pans. He has two 10-inch pans and two 12.5-inch pans.
“I replace them more than once a year,” says Himmelrich, who packed up one of the pans to take with him to Maine for vacation cooking. “The aluminum is super responsive to heat, and the pan goes nicely from stovetop to oven. Whether it is fish I caught, a frittata, or wild mushrooms, it never fails.”
His favorite dish to cook with his go-to pans? “Lacy-edge fried eggs with tarragon and one-sided snapper, cooked 85% with the skin side down.”
His preference for “old school” equipment and methods are reinforced by a framed, typewritten letter he keeps handy. It was written by the late New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne to a New York reader.
“I think microwaves are totally unnecessary in a serious kitchen,” Claiborne wrote in the October 1983 letter. “I rarely use mine other than to defrost something. It takes up valuable space.”
Readers: Do you have a favorite kitchen gadget? Tell us about it! Email [email protected] with details and a photo, and we may feature it in a future story.