Gift Guide

The 2012 Grub Street Gift Guide: 29 Gift Picks for Food Lovers of All Sorts

If you’re reading this, your gift-giving list this year probably contains at least a couple of food-loving people you just know would love … something. But there’s so much clutter — and so many useless kitchen tools — that finding a real gem of a present can turn into a chore. Rest easy, though: Grub Street turned to some of the country’s best chefs, bartenders, and restaurant owners to see which gifts they’ll be giving (or hoping for) this year. From simple $6 stocking stuffers all the way up to the best (and no doubt most expensive) knives imaginable, we’ve got you covered at every level.

Los Angeles chef Jeremy Fox recommends a small tabletop Japanese grill and its specialty charcoal: “Binchotan charcoal burns slow with low smoke so you can cook with the most control,” he says. “Plus, the flavor is almost haunting.” Charcoal Barbecue Grill, $239
Spend time in a professional kitchen and you know Vitamix is the go-to blender brand for chefs. Consider Food & Wine’s Gail Simmons a convert: “It’s my favorite new kitchen tool … It’s an amazingly powerful home blender that not only purées and mixes, but juices, churns, and emulsifies.” Vitamix Professional Series 300 Blender, $530
Matthew Lightner from New York’s Atera is known for his foraging sensibilities, so we take him seriously when he suggests Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson’s excellent book about his cooking-from-the-land ethos — even if we have no idea where to actually find moose meat to make the recipes. Fäviken, $50
Great cooks taste everything, which makes a thoughtfully made tasting spoon a great (if unexpected) stocking stuffer. Cleveland chef Jonathon Sawyer suggests the model made by, of all people, writer Michael Ruhlman: “It’s one of the most well-crafted and useful tools of the kitchen.” Dalton-Ruhlman Basting-Tasting-Saucing Offset Spoons, $34 for three spoons
Chefs love giving (and receiving) outstanding cutlery, and L.A. chef Ricardo Zarate’s preference comes from the 140-year-old Japanese knifemaker Masamoto. With prices that soar into the thousands, these are not knives for novices or culinary-school hopefuls (though there are luckily some options priced more affordably), but they are commonly considered some of the best you can buy. Masamoto Knives, $157 to $3,250
Fancy knives demand at least one fancy accessory: a top-rate sharpening stone (yes, it’s easier than you think to sharpen your own knives). Ratha Chaupoly, chef at New York’s Num Pang, suggests one from Korin: “They come in these beautiful boxes, and they’re also really useful in the kitchen.” Mizuyama Medium Grain Sharpening, $62 Photo: unknown/KORIN Japanese Trading, Corp.
Matt Jennings of Farmstead in Providence says the ultimate knife roll comes from Weft & Warp, handmade by former chef Erik Desjarlais: “These bags are one of those American products with unparalleled quality and first-rate craftsmanship.” The deadline for the made-to-order bags has passed, but Desjarlais sells gift certificates which will come with the added benefit of allowing your gift recipient to deal with the bag-maker directly. Weft and Warp gift certificate, $90
Forget fancy bottles of wine: Gabe Thompson, executive chef at New York’s dell’anima, L’Artusi, and L’Apiciou, suggests top-grade olive oil: “My perfect gift is a bottle of olio verde, a Sicilian olive oil that is super-delicious. It’s a rich, full-flavored olive oil that I drizzle on everything.” Olio Verde Novello Extra Virgin Olive Oil, $32
Matthew Kirkley, executive chef at Chicago’s L20, says he was blown away by the book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, a work he says “exposes the corrupt world of the industry, which crosses international lines and is rife with mislabeling.” Extra Virginity, $26
It’s not the sexiest tool out there, but Gotham Bar & Grill’s Alfred Portale says an instant-read thermometer is “indispensible.” In fact, he carries one in his travel kit at all times. It’s high praise for a humble stocking stuffer. Taylor 501 Connoisseur Line Instant Read Thermometer, $16
The most anticipated culinary tome released this year is from L’Astrance, the tiny, highly regarded Parisian restaurant from chef Pascal Barbot. Amazon offers the book at a discounted $60 price, which, according to chef Jason Berthold from RN74 in San Francisco, is “a steal to gain a little insight into Barbot’s process and methods that any chef would love.” (The book’s English-language run is extremely limited, but if you’re okay with giving an IOU, the word is that more copies should be coming to the States early next year.) Astrance: A Cook’s Book, $95
Food Network regular Duff Goldman suggests this coffee-aroma kit, a set of three dozen individual scents that make up coffee. “The booklet that comes with the set has beautiful abstract paintings that reflect each scent,” Goldman says. “As someone with synesthesia, it is like olfactory porn.” Le Nez du Cafe, $350
A couple of people we asked, including Brian Means, the bar manager at San Francisco’s Fifth Floor, and chef Dirk Flanigan from Henri and the Gage in Chicago, suggested this simple tool, which instantly cold-smokes food (Flanigan suggests clams and scallops) and cocktail fixings alike. The Smoking Gun, $100
By far the most common barware suggestion this year is this seamless Japanese mixing glass. Joe Campanale — beverage director at dell’anima, L’Artusi, Anfora, and L’Apicio — calls it “simply the most beautiful cocktail mixing glass.” Seamless Yarai Mixing Glass, $53
A couple years ago, ice spheres (which melt slower and thus dilute drinks less) were the exclusive territory of hand-carvers and serious cocktail dorks. Now, though, molds are readily available, and Kevin Diedrich, bar manager at Jasper’s Corner Tap & Kitchen in San Francisco, suggests the two-pack from Tovolo. Tovolo Ice Sphere Molds, $11 for two molds.
Barrel-aged cocktails haven’t exactly exploded as a trend, but they’re still novel. You can do it at home if you have the wherewithal (and space) for a full barrel. Or, per Ray Tang, chef at Presidio Social Club in San Francisco, you can use Tuthilltown’s much simpler solution: a bottle with a single barrel stave that will ably lend its woody accent to your next negroni. Barrel Aged Cocktail Kit, $12.50
At this point, even the lowliest home bartender has a couple of bottles of bitters laying around. Joel Teitelbaum, bar manager at Harry Denton’s Starlight Room in San Francisco, recommends upgrading anyone’s collection with a few bottles from Bittermens: “They are well priced and can bring the home bartender’s cocktails to the next level.” Grab a few flavors and give your giftee some options. Bittermens Bitters, prices vary
Clint Rogers, spirts director at Henri in Chicago, recommends the iSi whipped cream charger, but not for the reason you’d think: He uses his for superfast flavor infusions in booze. (Check out the full dossier on the technique here.) It’s a mind-opening gift for a budding bartender. iSi Creative Whip, $70 Photo: gregor halenda/gregor halenda photography
Do you know a salt snob? The kind of person who “finishes” his or her food with a sprinkling of pink salt from the Himalayas? Really impress them with a jar of Sal de Gusano, Oaxacan salt blended with agave-eating larvae. Why would you want such a thing? The grubs lend a deep umami flavor, and Brian Means, bar manager at Fifth Floor in San Francisco, says it’s even fantastic in cocktails. (Or, we’d guess, rimmed around a margarita glass.) Sal de Gusano, $13 to $51
For all the fancy coffee-brewing techniques and tools that are out there, Philly chef (and Food Network staple) Jose Garces says a classic Chemex set still can’t be beat. Classic Series Glass Coffeemakers, $35 to $43
If you’ve been to a restaurant in the last, say, two years, you know oysters are one of the must-have foods of the moment. And it’s easy enough to shuck them at home, provided you have the right tool. Jeremy Sewall, the chef and co-owner of Boston’s Island Creek Oyster Bar, suggests the New Haven oyster knife from R. Murphy, “hands down the best option for novice and expert shuckers alike.” New Haven Shucker, $14 Photo: Cody William Gantz/(C) 2009 Cody Gantz
If you know someone who’s really, really into oysters, a knife alone isn’t going to cut it — go deeper with this in-depth oyster book recommend by Parke Ulrich, executive chef at Waterbar in San Francisco: “Hands down a fascinating read for any chef.” A Geography of Oysters, $25
Plenty of chefs suggested giving a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle from Kentucky’s Old Rip Van Winkle distillery, but that’s the problem: Pappy has too many fans and not enough product to go around. If you do find some, your giftee will be forever indebted. But even if you can’t find Pappy, there are plenty of amazing alternatives.
It’s surprising how many people don’t own this very versatile, simple kitchen tool — even professional chefs. Missy Robbins from New York’s two A Voce locations calls it “a great gift for anyone who loves to cook — someone gave me one last year, and I love it.” Japanese Mortar and Pestle, $11
New York chef Michael Lomanoco is known as a steak guy, but he says when he cooks at home, he turns to big, family-friendly meals: “Sitting around the table with something delicious in the center to share family-style is the most relaxing way to enjoy the time together.” His favorite: paella, a showstopper dish that’s easy to make, provided you have the right pan. Garcima Traditional Steel Paella Pan, $25
The phrase “set of steak knives” makes us think of Alec Baldwin’s scene in Glengarry Glenn Ross, but Suzanne Tracht from Los Angeles’s Jar, swears by her set of hand-finished Japanese knives: “This is something that most people don’t think of buying for themselves, and once they have them, they can’t live without them.” Tojiro DP Knife Sets, $180 to $270
Gwin Grimes from Artisan Baking Co. in Fort Worth, Texas, suggests the Bouchon Bakery cookbook, a “beautiful book” that, she says, “sets the bar high — very, very high. Bouchon Bakery, $50
Emily Luchetti, executive pastry chef at Waterbar in San Francisco, suggests this stocking stuffer: “I couldn’t bake without one — it’s great for spreading batter into the corners of a pan, lifting cookies off sheet pans, scraping ingredients from a jar. In a pinch, I’ll even use it as a screwdriver.” Ateco Offset Plastic Handle Icing Spatulas, $6 to $12 Photo: unknown
What makes the fried chicken so good at Philadelphia’s Federal Donuts? Chef Michael Solomonov says it’s the (semi-) secret spice mix he uses: OMG, which stands for “onion, mustard, garlic.” Given the praise heaped upon his chicken, we’re inclined to take his advice. OMG Spice Blend, $15
The 2012 Grub Street Gift Guide: 29 Gift Picks for Food Lovers of All Sorts