Help me give a good gift to a budding sous-chef!
April 14, 2014 1:50 PM   Subscribe

Calling all professional cooks -- My brother has found himself transitioning from the wait staff to the kitchen and is hoping to make his way to the sous-chef position. He's very enthusiastic about this and I'd like to give him a gift for his birthday to support this new endeavor.

The place where he's currently working is a high-end seafood restaurant in a small town. I've eaten there. It's pretty good. This is a late in life transition for him and I've not seen him this enthusiastic about something in awhile. That said, he does not have any kind of formal culinary background though he has worked in the restaurant industry (primarily front of house) for his entire professional life, in a variety of establishments. He knows his way around a restaurant, for sure. But, what can I get him that would be helpful?

Was thinking of a book, but I don't want him to show up with a bunch of "book learning" techniques which would appear amateur to a high-end chef. A couple I was considering: The Professional Chef, Knife Skills Illustrated. He just purchased his own fancy fish knife, so apparently it's not outside the bounds to bring your own tools.

Any ideas for special tools that might be nice to have?
posted by amanda to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
As someone who years back worked in industry, I'll warn you against a gift of tools, just because they're such individual items. Chefs really do want to pick out their own tools to their tastes (this especially applies to knives). Maybe instead of a book (boring), you could opt for a subscription to Cook's Illustrated, which is way more geared to people who know what they're doing in a kitchen and explain in much greater detail their methods as a result.

One year my mother, bless her heart, found out I was cooking, so got me a bunch of things, none of which I really wanted to use, and I didn't have the heart, but they just kind of sat in a box for years.
posted by General Malaise at 1:55 PM on April 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is there a local cooking school or culinary school? Maybe there is a knife skills class you could buy for him? Or a certificate and he could pick out a class? Or a certificate to a local kitchen supply store would be great - he could pick out a knife or other tool that he'd really like to have.
posted by barnone at 2:08 PM on April 14, 2014

You could get him a book or two that will help him explore and fine-tune his palate -- increased comfort and confidence with a wide variety of flavors, pairings, and ingredients will serve him better and more consistently than any fancy tool could do.

Here are a few enthusiastic amateur-friendly tomes that might give him a boost:
+ The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity
+ The Flavor Thesaurus: A Compendium of Pairings, Recipes and Ideas for the Creative Cook
+ The Science of Good Cooking
+ Herbs & Spices: The Cook's Reference
+ What to Drink with What You Eat
+ Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking
+ The Elements of Cooking: Translating the Chef's Craft for Every Kitchen

James Peterson is also a great author of books pretty much designed for folks like your brother, so maybe get him a relevant volume from this collection?
+ Cooking
+ Meat
+ Fish & Shellfish
+ Vegetables
+ Sauces
posted by divined by radio at 2:16 PM on April 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Michael Ruhlman is a food writer who also went through CIA cooking school. He's a big proponent of a spoon (not tongs) being the best tool for maneuvering food around. He's designed these spoons which have a cult following among chefs.

You could also get him a knife roll to hold all of his tools.
posted by quince at 2:17 PM on April 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Gift certificate to a place to pick up a nice knife (they can be spendy), or one of these. If he is going to be working in a kitchen, and buying / bringing his own knives, he'll need a case.
posted by efalk at 2:19 PM on April 14, 2014

Yeah, I'd second knife roll or case. A knife itself is too personal a thing for anyone but him to pick, really, but a knife roll is something few home cooks use but most professionals require.
posted by Diablevert at 2:33 PM on April 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

A Thermapen.

That's the tool you are looking for.
posted by gyusan at 3:16 PM on April 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thirding a knife roll, blade protectors, or a high-end but simple gadget, e.g. a Thermapen, small-but-accurate IR thermometer, or maybe a brand-name Microplane.

If he's comfortable sharpening his own knives, research whetstones and get him something good. If he might not be, get him a gift certificate for some professional sharpening at a reputable knife store or dedicated sharpening service.
posted by WasabiFlux at 3:32 PM on April 14, 2014

It's great that your brother is looking forward to working back of the house. He'll need that enthusiasm, I can assure you. It's a very tough gig. (Not that FOH isn't hard work, by any means.) Working to the Sous Chef position will take a lot of skill, leadership, and grinding patience.

You have good instincts in not wanting to give him unnecessary/inappropriate tools, and in wanting to spare him a reputation for book larnin' only. He's probably going to get enough ribbing for his serving background. I think that things like the Professional Chef textbook will be valuable and enjoyable... As home reading, for fun, or to get ideas once he's in a position to suggest new recipes. That book, in particular, is a textbook, so it's certainly more helpful than say, a fluffy, contractually-obligated cookbook from some celebrity chef. The information in it is "correct," and often really useful, but what will ultimately matter for him is what his Chef wants. Trying to bone up ahead of time will be pointless, and possibly embarrassing, if the proscribed prep for something is different. Humility, enthusiasm, and work ethic are all key, not so much classes or books.

(Frankly, few things are more annoying to cooks than cooks who think they know stuff without having put in some time, or paid some dues. I once worked with a kid who was a recent culinary school grad. He could make a mean decorative box constructed of chocolate, and had a huge attitude, but couldn't operate a grill station or handle more than one order at a time. Needless to say, he was not a popular dude, in a kitchen full of people who had worked their way up from dishwasher.)

As for tools, there shouldn't be any problem with him bringing his own. In fact, this is industry standard, at least in higher-end/smaller kitchens. Large-scale places like cafeterias or commissaries do sometimes provide cheap knives, but most restaurant cooks have a few select tools (or tons, if they are show-offs/gear fetishists) that they bring to work each day. I personally made it through roughly ten years as a cook with a single chef's knife; with practice, you can do (almost) literally everything with just that.

I wouldn't suggest getting the knives etc, yourself. As others have noted, choices about such things can be highly individual, and even almost talismanic. But aesthetics and superstition aside, bad ergonomics are hell in a kitchen. If you must, a 8" chef's knife from Wustof is a reasonable starter knife; they are not "trendy" or "cutting edge" but they are respected and built to take a beating. Not too heavy, not too lightweight. Not too expensive, relatively easy to maintain an edge on. But it would probably be better to either buy a knife roll with no knives in it, or to give a gift certificate to the nearest high-end cutlery store. That way he can try things out in person. Going back to earlier points, however, he'd be well served by keeping things simple. It would suck to drop $200+ on a knife, and then ruin it making early-days mistakes.
posted by credible hulk at 3:34 PM on April 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Maybe a gift certificate to a specialty store like The Rare Tea Cellar, but closer to where he lives so he can go there and pick stuff out? I know he won't use those things on the job but he'll probably start experimenting at home.

Otherwise I would say either a trip to a restaurant he's been wanting to go to or a couple of bottles of amazing wine-- or accompany him to a winemaker dinner or tasting and let him pick out a few things-- might be a nice way to mark the transition.
posted by BibiRose at 4:59 PM on April 14, 2014

I do not work in a kitchen, and I'm a just-above-average home cook, but I received The Professional Chef as a gift, and it is a really nice reference. Not sure it is the right gift for this situation (knife roll sounds better), but definitely keep it in mind for Christmas/birthdays/whatever.
posted by jeoc at 5:14 PM on April 14, 2014

I wouldn't buy him a knife, as others have pointed out, since it's extremely personal and he'll need to go to try many knifes and then choose one. That being said, I helped my boyfriend buy his knife (we split it 50-50 and I paid around 80 dollars), and then later I bought him this sharpening steel as a surprise, which he absolutely adores and uses every day when he's at work. Cooks use a steel in the kitchen all day and they usually have their own one, so if he ends up choosing a knife, you could purchase the steel from the same company to accompany it. You could also buy him a kitchen tool bag, as he will definitely need one.
posted by carmel at 5:34 PM on April 14, 2014

On Food and Cooking.

Magnets to clip notes and recipes to his shelf. Gift certificate for knife shop? Those Fibrox knives are really good/cheap and he'll probably like one if you want to give a 'thing'.
posted by Kaleidoscope at 11:28 PM on April 14, 2014

came in to say on food and cooking as well. this book rocks. want to know why things taste the way they do and why ingredients react with others a certain way? this is the perfect book for a chef with some skills and no formal background. it's required reading for johnson & wales students. also agree with others that personal items are just that - personal. i prefer to go handle all my knives, etc before purchasing. maybe a gift certificate to a kitchen store? look for your local restaurant supply as they run much cheaper than williams sonoma, sur la table, etc. and carry actual useful items as opposed to all the idiotic time wasting gadgets.
posted by ps_im_awesome at 8:45 AM on April 15, 2014

1) Several boxes of Sharpies. Protips: if he doesn't want them stolen (we're all thieves in kitchens), get him pink ones (most guys on the line are Manly Men), or tell him to only ever lend out Sharpies and keep the lid. That'll get them back to him. He'll need sharpies for labeling product and for keeping notes.

2) A notebook

If he's moving from FOH to the kitchen, putting his sights on sous is unrealistic at best. You work your way up to sous, generally, by mastering every station in the kitchen. You're the dude/tte who Chef can count on to step in anytime, anywhere, and fix any problem. This is a process that takes years, usually. Help him understand realistic goals; "I want to be sous" with no experience is not realistic. "I want to be on the hot line in under six months" is realistic with support and dedication.

He's going to be starting out in prep world, most likely. This is where the notebook comes in: tell him to write down every damn thing he learns about a recipe, advice from Chef or other people on the line, etc.

And then take him knife shopping. At this stage of his career he needs:

1) A standard French chef's knife. 8-10" depending on his height. Santoku knives are becoming increasingly popular (I prefer them frankly), but he should learn the western classics before starting with Asian tools. Victorinox sells a virtually indestructible chef's knife for about $40 that gets rave reviews from professionals.

2) A paring knife. Or seven. They're easily misplaced; get cheap ones. For now.

3) A boning knife.

4) A sharpening stone (wet is nice, oil is better for me) and detailed instructions on how to use it. You should be sharpening your knives every 2-3 days at a minimum. I know guys who sharpen every day.

I'll nth On Food and Cooking. The CIA also puts out a series of essentially textbooks that will help give him a head start on technique. Start with Garde Manger, because that's most likely the first station he'll work in the kitchen.

Congratulations to your brother. It's a hell of an industry to be in.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:20 PM on April 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, couple other tips:

1) Don't put your sharpies in the stupid sleeve pockets. They fall out when you bend over. Clip them sideways between the top and next buttons of your coat. This is something that easily separates n00bs from the experienced.

2) Be thoughtful about when and where you ask questions. Chefs, as a breed, love to impart knowledge. In the middle of a busy service when there's a dozen plates dying on the pass because the goddamn servers are gossiping again is not the right time.

3) Remember the hierarchy. Right now, he ranks just above the dishwasher and below everyone else.

4) The two most important words he needs to learn: "Yes, chef!" Chefs don't want to hear excuses or bullshit; they want it done and they want it done now.

5) If he is unsure of how to make something, that is always the appropriate time to ask how. Don't wing it and create more work for someone else because you screwed it up.

6) See #4. Seriously.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:27 PM on April 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

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