If I said I have worked in a few kitchens, it would be an understatement. I have worked a lot in a lot of kitchens over many years. A lifetime, in fact. 

And not just in restaurant kitchens, either. While my two boys were small I worked as a private chef for about nine years total, before and after owning the original Café Moxie in Vineyard Haven and after I ran Roadhouse in North Tisbury. During that time I cooked in some pretty amazing homes, almost all with spectacular views of the ocean.  

Most of the kitchens were impressively outfitted with shiny high-end appliances. One kitchen I worked in had a La Cornue range, the Rolls-Royce of cooking ranges. Unbeknownst to me, it had never been used until I turned on the French masterpiece oven to roast a chicken.  

I often found that these upscale home kitchens appeared to have plenty of cookware items, but on closer inspection the items seemed to have been chosen for their form (that is, did they look good) rather than their function (did they actually work well). One of the best examples was a basic set of tongs. Usually I would find a heavy, clunky, polished pair that looked nice but were clumsy and made it difficult to grab anything. Other homes had drawers full of gadgets but lacked necessities. One had only disposable baking pans. A chef always brings his or her own knife kit to a job, but in order to cook comfortably in these kitchens I began bringing along a selection of pans, stainless steel bowls, even spoons.  

The problem isn’t unique to the La Cornue/personal chef–having set. Whether you’re on a budget or just distracted by a seemingly endless selection of dreamy gadgets and new fads, it can be difficult to know exactly which items you should include in your kitchen. The simple answer: stick to the basics.  

With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of my favorite tools. These aren’t new, trendy items – no flashes in the pan, so to speak – but instead tried-and-true pieces that I use again and again. Think of them as the culinary equivalent of your favorite pair of jeans. Once you have those picked out, you can accessorize however you like. (I recommend a La Cornue range.)

My 10 Kitchen Must-Haves

1. 10-inch+ Cast Iron Pan: A real workhorse, a cast iron pan distributes heat evenly, making it the perfect choice for cooking everything from eggs to pork chops. With proper care (season per directions and baby this baby, cleaning and keeping a perfectly even surface), it will last a lifetime. 

2. Tongs: Don’t overcomplicate this. You want a basic 10-inch pair, not heavy but restaurant weight. It doesn’t matter how they look; you just need them to pick up food. 

3. Sheet Pans: Go for a nice heavy set that will hold up to continued use. I have 11-x-16 half-sheet pans that work nicely for everything from roasting veggies to baking cookies.

4. Microplane: An indispensable, often overlooked tool for grating garlic, ginger, and citrus zest.

5. Meat Mallet: Do you really need one of these? No. Should you get one? Yes. It’s the perfect tool for pounding chicken or pork to an even thickness, guaranteeing more even cooking. Using one will make you a better cook. 

6. 4-Quart Sauce Pan: Big enough to boil pasta or make rice or sauté vegetables, this is a great all-purpose size. Choose a heavier, bonded stainless steel model like All-Clad.

7. Set of Good Knives: Everyone needs good knives – plural. To cover most basic kitchen tasks, you should keep a 10-inch, a chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a serrated knife on hand.

8. Stainless Steel Bowl Set: There’s a reason I carried these with me to my personal chef gigs. They are prepping essentials, used for tossing roasted veggies in olive oil, mixing cookies or pancake batter, or making marinades
and dressings.

9. Medium Whisk: They don’t get the glory, but no kitchen is complete without one for scrambling eggs, mixing vinaigrettes, etc.

10. Dutch Oven: A perfect heirloom piece, it’s worth spending a little extra dough to get one you really like. They’re great for roasting a whole chicken or making stews and braises, and can be used on the stovetop or in the oven. Mine is copper, twenty-two years old, and was a gift when my older son was born. It’s still going strong.

Does this list contain everything youd want or need to cook every meal? Far from it. I debated leaving off the meat mallet in favor of my favorite vegetable peeler or ladletwo items I use all the time. Still, I think youll find that the
items on the list cover most of your cooking needs, including the recipe on this page.

Finally, lest you think that Im stuck in my ways and immune to new, shiny kitchen innovations, I assure you that’s not the case. Walking into LeRoux at Home in Vineyard Haven makes my heart flutter like a kid in a candy shopThe hundreds of kitchen hand tools, cool baking pans, and kitchen scrubbers make me giddy. Those stacks of colorful Le Creuset cookware makes me drool. But a quick call to LeRoux owners Michael Levandowski and April Krajeski confirmed that my back-to-basics approach is, in fact, in line with LeRouxs devoted customers. 

Levandowski and Krajeski have owned the business for some twenty years and now own a total of six LeRoux stores throughout New England. Theyve seen plenty of changes in that time and most recently report an uptick in sales of reusable wares, like glass storage containers, beeswax wraps for food, and silicone containers instead of plastic. Basically, healthy wares, said Levandowski.  

Still, he said, the overarching trend remains quality staples. People are investing in long-lasting kitchenware like pots, pans, knives, even toasters that can be used for years, if not decades, he said. One of their biggest sellers? The top item on my list: a Lodge cast iron pan.  

The following recipe was originally published along with this article:

Lemon Shallot Chicken