Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Turning Japanese? Chuck Williams thinks so.

This is a two-part pre-Christmas rant.

Part I: Williams-Sonoma. And, that's Williams-Sonoma, NOT Williams & Sonoma. (This is a similar lesson to learning not to say Bracco's and Spezia's.) Chuck Williams is a guy who opened a cookware store north of San Francisco in an area famous for wine-- Sonoma County. Hence, Williams-Sonoma. Williams & Sonoma sounds like a law firm.

So, anyway, there was probably a time when Chuck was the MAN when it came to mail-order gourmet cooking equipment. That time was probably from 1956 to some time in the late 80's or early 90's. I remember getting the WIlliams-Sonoma catalog back at the time I was starting to do a lot of cooking. That was right about the same time I got my very own subscription to Gourmet magazine. By the way, Gourmet was a much different publication back then, too, but that's another rant entirely. Anyway, I felt like I had arrived.

If you wanted/needed a cherry pitter, chocolate shaver, and a big old 5 pound bar of Callebaut to shave, Chuck could hook you up. In other words, you could find things at W-S that you probably couldn't find elsewhere. Nowdays, there are many more outlets and W-S has changed.
If you are a student of the W-S catalog, or the retail stores for that matter, it's more about what they think you should want instead of what you need. It's more about life-style than equipment. I think the demise came about around the time Chuck started a housewares outfit called Pottery Barn. Yeah, yeah, yeah, this stuff is real cool and it looks really nice, but if you are a shopping addict, you are going to be remodeling every 6 months to keep up with whatever the latest style might be.

Try this- walk into a W-S store and try to find a decent pair of tongs. Not the big-ass rosewood BBQ ones that are like squeezing one of those spring-loaded grip workout dealies, just a decent pair of stainless steel tongs. End of story- you won't find one, but you will find an espresso machine you'll need financing for, sauces that conveniently make Beef Bourgignonne in a $400 All-Clad crock pot, or whatever the hell color of Provencal place mats they are hocking this year. See, it's not so much about selling you equipment as it is an image.

I suppose this is just good retail and it apparently works. But I seriously just want a pair of tongs or maybe a decent China cap chinois. Need to go elsewhere. My choices? Whenever possible, a local retailer, like Kitchen Window in Uptown of Minneapolis, Someone's in the Kitchen in Rapid City, or Treasures from the Heart on 57th and Louise. Seriously, check that out, they got major stuff in that store disguised as yet another Yankee Candle retailer.

Part II: Despite my ever-growing infrequent purchases from W-S, I do still get the catalog and here comes the turning Japanese part. Remember that song from the 80's, by the way? "Turning Japanese, I think I'm turning Japanese, I really think so." Did you know it's about masturbation? Look it up.

So, the reason I say Chuck thinks we are turning Japanese is because besides outrageously expensive espresso machines, this year's holiday catalog features some crazy spendy Asian-style knives. Specifically, Shun Bob Kramer Meiji knives that you can get ON SPECIAL as a 6-piece set for the low, low price of $1599. Serious bargain considering the regular retail is $2177. Now, I may not know why Owners Equity plus Liabilities = MC squared, or any of that other funny accounting stuff, but I sure as hell know that's $266.67 PER BLADE, on sale. In the same catalog you can get a 12-piece set of Wustof Classic for $500, or for another $200, you can get the same knives with Asian-style handles.

Now, I must admit, the really spendy Shun knives are gorgeous. Damascus steel, cocobolo handles. Really sweet. But who buys these things? My guess, people who have more money than sense or people who want everyone else to be super-impressed because they have really expensive stuff.

Having knives like that is kind of like having a custom-made Holland & Holland shotgun instead of a good old Remington 870 to shoot ducks. They'll both get the job done, but which one are you going to toss in the bottom of the boat while you set decoys? Or, to put it another way, it's perhaps a little like checking a Louis Vuitton hard-sider suitcase for a three-stop trip to vacation. Sure, you can, or could, but why? I mean, who the hell do you think you are the Prince of Whales? You gonna use that $300 santoku to hack through half a chicken, or open a can? Exactly.

The other major beef I got is Asian knives, actually. To give credit where credit is due, they are usually well-made and extremely sharp. But, they are different than the traditional French-styled knives that most of us have seen in kitchens forever. Besides that half-cleaver, half-chef's knife santoku design, these puppies have different edges on them. The bevel on the blade is ground to a different angle. The steel is also a little different than what the Germans crank out in Solingen. It's harder. The point? (Har Har) It's a little harder to maintain the edge on these. The designs of some of these knives are very purpose-oriented. Watch a good Japanese sushi chef use one of those long, skinny blades. If he came up through the traditional Japanese apprenticeship regime, he probably mixed rice for 20 years before he was allowed to wash that knife. Anyway, if you aren't used to these knives and their functions, know they are different, and not necessarily for everyone. Just because they look cool and might appear to give you some out-of-the-box cache, you might not like them.

Good equipment doesn't always come cheap, but it helps to have the right tools for the job. If your budget is somewhat limited, I recommend you take your time finding and buying high-end equipment. Eventually, you will find what you like and be able to afford it, even if it means buying a pan or a knife a year. In the meantime, you are better putting your money into decent ingredients and concentrating on your technique so as not to screw them up. If you can't do that, Damascus steel Shun knives won't save you.

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