Knives steal the limelight because they are dangerous and sexy; in the hands of a maestro, they can be used to great effect. Chefs’ pans, however, do not get the attention they deserve – and it is they that impart flavour.
As they are in constant use, certain pans become firm friends. Just before Christmas, I asked seven top chefs to nominate their favourites.
I began with Heston Blumenthal, shortly to open a new restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge. His current favourite, he said, was a sous-vide airtight plastic bag, which many chefs use for slow cooking. When I refused to believe this, Blumenthal laughed and added: “Well, in that case it has to be a cast-iron Staub casserole dish that I bought in France many years ago.” So dear is this pan to him that he takes it on holiday. “When we’ve been to the local market I like barbecuing – it’s very sociable because I’m outside, and challenging too because the pan has to be moved around all the time.”
Shaun Hill remembers precisely where he bought his favourite pan 25 years ago, but then he does use it every day at The Walnut Tree Inn, near Abergavenny, Wales. “It’s a stainless steel zabaglione pan that I bought from a travelling van the first week I started at Gidleigh Park in Devon.
“It was expensive, so I cannot imagine what prompted me to buy it. But I’m delighted I did. It is deep and perfectly rounded with a large hollow handle. I whisk egg yolks and wine over hot water to make sabayon or the base for a hollandaise sauce, which I make every day ... There are no corners, so it whisks like a dream. Nothing can quite replace it.”
Like Hill, Michael Romano, culinary director of the Union Square Hospitality Group, New York, remembers where he acquired his beloved heavy-duty grill pan, designed by the late Michael Lax for manufacturer Copco. It is large, with a long wooden handle and weighs at least five kilos, but has travelled everywhere with him since 1979.
“I was working in Switzerland for a very wealthy businessman who had plans to turn his estate into a first-class golf course with an equally fine restaurant.
“The club never materialised but the pan stayed. The wooden handle is a tad less secure than it once was but it still grills as beautifully as ever. Whenever I cook with it, a flood of happy memories come back.”
The memories that Michel Troisgros, of the three-star Maison Troisgros in Roanne, France, associates with his steel frying pan go back even further. “In the kitchen at Maison Troisgros, there is one pan that is very, very well worn because my father Pierre, and my late uncle Jean, used to cook with it. I treasure it. As the French say, ‘It’s the old frying pans that make the best omelettes’.”
Ruth Rogers’ kitchen at the River Café in west London may be high-tech, but at home she loves cooking on a cast-iron ridged grill placed over two gas hobs.
“I use it for everything: toasting bruschetta, slices of aubergine or a sirloin steak. I have a beautiful oven with a vast range of functions, including grilling from the top-down, but I have hardly ever used any of them. My cast-iron grill pan is the only way to go.”
An old, deep, carbon steel pan with a wooden handle is Jung Sik Yim’s preferred pan at Jung Sik Dang restaurant in the South Korean capital Seoul. “I bought this pan in 2004 in New York’s Chinatown when I was at the Culinary Institute of America so that I could cook for my friends. Now every morning in the restaurant I cook family meals for my staff in the same pan. It’s round and has a big cooking area so it’s excellent for all types of Asian food: fried rice, stir-fried pork, spicy noodle soup and so on. All the dishes I have cooked from this pan have been for the people I love,” he says.
Finally, star pastry chef Claire Clark is back in London after working at The French Laundry in California, looking for the right backing and site for her own patisserie and the next home for her tarte tatin pan. “I bought this 15 years ago at an antique shop,” she said. “Although ever so slightly dented, the lining is in extraordinary condition. It has a massive 10-inch diameter flat base and completely straight sides. “It makes the perfect tarte tatin: the base is just the right thickness so that the butter and sugar caramelise perfectly without the apples getting too soft. No other pan I have ever used does this so well. It’s very precious to me.”
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