Over tens of thousands of years, human beings harnessed fire, created language and developed rudimentary tools as they slowly learned to tame the land. Either that, or God, after designing our flag and writing up a neat little pledge to go along with it, provided such things to humankind fairly recently--it just depends which history text the state approves for public schools.
According to both versions, however, the pace of human inventiveness proceeded rapidly as creators produced wheels, reapers, gunpowder, steam engines, electric light, automobiles, duct tape, televisions and so on over the centuries. Elements and obstacles succumbed to human endeavor. The scope of our collective genius is impressive when you consider even the basic accomplishments: We spanned chasms; we built cities; we walked on the moon; we provided doctors with marvelous new tools then sued the hell out of them for using those tools.
That spirit of invention continued apace until Ron Popeil designed the Pocket Fisherman. The world realized suddenly that everything of value already existed. The products of innovation now appear on late-night television ads or in Wal-Marts: Kitchen Magicians, salad spinners, Segway Human Transporters, wave scramblers and the like. Yet people keep buying such items. The Burning Question crew rummaged through our editor's cabinets and found a garlic press, a rolling mincer, something called a pastamatic and an oblong battery-powered device of uncertain purpose. (Editor's note: It was a cattle prod for correcting unruly "writers.")
"I guess we've come to a point where we're lazy," Joseph Maher, chef-owner at Mirabelle, suggests.
This week's Burning Question addresses the end of advancement as it applies to the kitchen. The world is now awash in gadgets. Are any of them worthwhile?
"It depends on what you mean by worthwhile," says Gilbert Garza, chef-owner of Suze, sounding vaguely like a certain former president. "Anything's worthwhile if you use it."
"Obviously all that stuff is there to make money," adds Ted Grieb, executive corporate chef at Dakota's. "We've been cooking without them for hundreds of years." Chefs indeed prefer simplicity. "In a professional kitchen, you're looking for crossover," explains Nick Badovinus, chef-partner for Cuba Libre and Sense. "If you have a good chef's knife, a paring knife, a blender and a mandoline, you can trick out anything."
The mandoline is a tool for slicing, dicing and otherwise mistreating harmless vegetables. Just about every restaurant owns one, along with a blender or food processor and a few specialized tools--pasta machines, spaetzle makers--depending on cuisine. Otherwise, chefs rely on their knives. "The chef's knife can do a lot of things--open cans, use it as a spatula," Grieb brags. "If more people would learn to use a knife properly, they wouldn't need gadgets."
Try telling that to the Army.
Many chefs simply distrust kitchen gadgets. When Mike Smith, executive chef of 2900 and The Thomas Avenue Brewing Company, owned a restaurant in Arkansas (we forgot to ask whether it was an IHOP or a Stuckey's), he prepared meals for a live television spot every week. During the course of one live broadcast, a cheese grater--a gift from his mother--broke in half. "They make you believe the gadgets can do anything, until the handle breaks off in your hand," he mutters. "After that happens about four times, you become anti-gadget."
Aside from breakage, chefs trying out various gadgets complain about the end result. "Stuff like minichoppers, garlic presses, they're junk," Garza asserts. "All they do is destroy the product."
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Yet a few surprising items find use in professional kitchens. Jeffery Hobbs, executive chef at Il Sole, considers a melon baller essential to everyday cooking. They are great, he says, for coring apples and pears, which leads us to believe he misses the point. His counterpart at Mirabelle understands product labeling, using an egg slicer to slice eggs. Landmark produces impressive homemade chocolate from inexpensive plastic molds. "They're cheap, but they turn out beautiful chocolate," says Doug Brown, Landmark's executive chef. "You just gotta hire yourself a pastry chef." Chris Peters of Lola invests in more plebeian tools, like the Fry Daddy. "We do matchstick potatoes and apple turnovers in a Fry Daddy," Peters admits. "I buy them at Target."
Another chef prowling the aisles at discount mega marts is Joanne Bondy of Ciudad. "I love cable ties," she says. "They sell assortment packs at Home Depot. You can attach a cord and it won't get in your way, tie up a pastry bag so it won't spill. We keep them at every station."
Ultimately, kitchen gadgets simply clutter our cupboards and countertops. They duplicate common cooking procedures, such as chopping or blending. Sometimes they even hasten an otherwise laborious process.
"There are a few gadgets that are worthwhile," Hobbs concludes. "But simplicity is the way to go."