What would you say is the most important tool in your kitchen? The one that you truly cannot cook without? Actually, that's a trick question. The tools that we use, even the ones we absolutely depend on, are all cultural. That means nothing is truly essential because cooks have been making great food using totally different tools than yours for centuries. Tim Hayward is a British food writer and an obsessive about the history of kitchen tools. His latest book is The Modern Kitchen. Francis Lam talked to him about some of the tools people think they can’t live without and about the ones that actually did change the way we cook and eat.

You can also enjoy these excerpts from Hayward's books

Francis Lam: I love the idea that the tools that we use say so much about us, often without us even realizing it. The first thing I want to talk with about is the chef’s knife. Because we think of getting a quote-unquote real chef’s knife as what makes you a real cook. I remember getting my first chef’s knife; it was 65 dollars and I thought to myself, “I need to keep this for the rest of my life. I’m a serious cook now.” But you write that that’s a recent idea. How did that happen?

Tim Hayward: I think it is. When you travel around and see people cooking in their own homes, and certainly if you think of your own older relatives, there was no chef’s knife, no chef’s tools in the kitchen. They would use whatever was to hand and you’d cut sitting down at a table towards their thumb with a vaguely blunt knife in a very worrying way.

It’s a big, dangerous thing, a kitchen knife. We don’t have guns in my country, and when I put that thing down on the table I realize that is big piece of weapon steel that I could do considerable damage with. Even in sleepy Cambridge, if I took that thing outside on the street I’d be tasered to the ground in two minutes. Yet we have this strange object, and that’s a really weird thing to bring into your home. It speaks a lot of the worship of the chef and how they’ve become celebrities in their own way. I believe Elizabeth David was the first person in UK food writing who said you should go out and get yourselves one of these French carbon steel knives. But since then, you know we can’t wait to see Gordon Ramsey doing that thing with the knife on screen where where the sparks go everywhere. You can be sure that’s not his real knife, by the way. [laughing]

FL: In my mind then, because this is such a fetishized object and this quote-unquote made you a real cook, I did sort of assume that people always cooked this way. But even intellectually I knew that they weren’t always around. My family used Chinese cleavers, so for that reason I just never saw them.

TH: It’s really intriguing how the knife tells you about the place of cooking in people’s culture. I have a knife called a cai dao. Some people think of it more as a cleaver, though it’s much lighter than an actual meat chopper would be. I love it, I love using it. That’s the general purpose knife in Chinese cookery. I’ve got a beautifully made one of those by one of the best manufacturers in the world, and it’s still a fifty-dollar item. You look at it and you realize that in that culture it doesn’t have the precision element of a high-status tool. It’s a thing that’s kept in the back room. It’s almost a servant-like function that the knife is used that way. It doesn’t have status built into it. But you compare that with a Japanese knife, which comes from a tradition of samurai sword making, and there’s a sort of nobility in the blade. Then you’ve got a German kitchen knife and it’s made the same way that surgical steel would have been made. And it’s used by men; it has a male application to it because it’s a tool with a function near to a weapon. All of those things, all of those codifications, give us an understanding of the culture of the period and the background and the way people interact with cooking as a whole.

FL: And the fact that you have to stand up while using these knives.

TH: This is really weird, yeah. The book started when I tried to write something about the history of the fitted kitchen. Because I couldn’t work out why it was that we have this thing in our life that was sold to us that was halfway between a room in the house and a piece of furniture. Of course, there are two standard heights in the UK, one for the table you eat at and one for the table you cook at. I couldn’t work that out. And at some point around the period of the Modernist designers, they were thinking the making of food is a working practice, and therefore you should have a bench and you should stand at a bench like a man working in a workshop. So, you have a rack for your tools and a bench at waist height on which you operate. Now, that means that the chef’s knife is absolutely useless without a chopping board. There are other parts of the world where people don’t have a bench. They cook around a fire, they cook around a pot, where the standard working position is like squatting.

Then you have knives where you cut towards your thumb. Or there’s a phenomenon of guarded knives, you see these a lot of Southeast Asia. It’s very much like a quick vegetable peeler with a blade that’s concealed behind a metal guard and you run it along the vegetable. You don’t need a chopping board to cut downwards and into it. You can use it in any position and in any place. You don’t need the kitchen. It’s a marvelous notion.

FL: That is so fascinating. I just came home from a trip to Thailand, and so many of the traditional kitchens in Thailand are outside of their home.

TH: Absolutely. Near the fire. You don’t want the fire inside.

FL: It’s a totally different space and that transforms the tools, transforms your position, transforms everything.

TH: Completely. I didn’t actually get any photographs of the device to go into the book, sadly, but this will really bake your noodle. In traditional Indian cookery, the knife is mounted on a wooden block on the floor between your legs. You take the object in your hand and you bash the object on the blade. It’s phenomenal and bizarre and brilliant to watch. And it’s reversed from the way most people cut domestically.

FL: Yeah, there is no one right way to do things.

TH: Exactly.

FL: Let’s move on to something else, something in your book that I thought seemed innocuous, but you say is controversial. And that is the garlic press and that little earthenware pot that my mom keeps her garlic in.

TH: Yes, the role of garlic. This is the UK, everything has a class ramification to it. We love our class system and we can’t wait to find ways to distinguish ourselves from each other. The garlic press was originally designed so you could squeeze garlic without getting the smell of garlic on your fingers. Smelling of garlic would’ve been a lower-class thing, it meant you were rather a cook, God forbid. Or you’re one of those people who had cheap, awful food and you had to put this stinking bulb into it to make it taste like anything at all. Again, I think it was Elizabeth David who first about this, and she had this slightly scornful attitude, which is, “Of course you should’ve use one of these ghastly, lower-middle class objects. You must display your Bohemian creativity by embracing the garlic and loving the smell of it. And so you must press it with the side of your knife and mince it with salt.” I believe food writers are quite quiet people, but if you want to start a proper fight in a pub, talk to another food writer about whether or not they use a garlic press. I use a garlic press, but I’m not going to admit it anybody at all. That’s our secret. [laughs]

FL: Elizabeth David wrote in the mid-century, in the 1950s, I believe.

TH: That’s right. The 1950s and 1960s.

FL: And she’s talking about how you have to love and embrace your garlic that many years ago. Why is that still controversial? We are you getting into fights on weekends?

TH: For me as a writer, I think she symbolizes a period of writing about food in the UK that was very much about upper class aspiration, and I’m from a generation of food writers that doesn’t feel that way. We have so many different varieties of food from so many different cultures from so many different social levels. I had something for lunch today that was the peasant cuisine of a country on the other side of the world, and I’m proud that that kind of thing happens. I think a lot of class distinction that was in that period we want to get rid of, we want to avoid that element. I suppose that I probably use a garlic press because Elizabeth David said I shouldn’t. 

FL: Then there are the little tools that you say changed everything. It sounds like chief among these are the clock and the thermometer.

TH: This ties you into the entire history of cookbooks and recipes. Peasant people cooked for themselves by heating up the food over the fire. That’s all there was. And you passed orally the tradition of how you cooked. It’s only when you start having kitchens in great houses and you have professional cooks working there that you have to start having some kind of principle of passing the message on. So, in stately homes there were apprentice cooks, in monasteries there would be cooks that would teach younger cooks always orally. But the minute you start having recipes written down you’ve got to have a different type of notion of time.

Back in the old days, in a monastery, I would say, “You, young monk, if you want to boil an egg you should recite four Hail Mary, and if you want it to cook a bit more you add a bit more than that because that’s how it’s always been here.” And that would be fine. Now, if I’m writing a book about how to cook an egg I’ve got to be able to talk about time in a different way altogether; I have to be able to talk about a standard minute. When you have timing, you can actually communicate between each other over greater distances, and suddenly a recipe makes sense. Of course, it’s exactly the same with temperature. It used to be that they would talk about hot fire, a cool heat, and medium – which was between the two. Think about recipes in the 1940s and they would say “cook over a fierce fire” or “cook over a low fire;” they would use the term fire even though they had gas cookers at that point. But there were only the two settings – low/simmer or hot/sear – and that was it.

But that causes a lot of the problems and issues that we have with food. This notion of perfection. This notion that if I’m a half-decent writer I should be able to write your recipe, whereby if you have never done this before and you have no experience at this whatsoever – and it’s from an entirely different culture than yours – you should be able to do it perfectly the first time you try it because I’ve written it so well. And that notion of perfection militates against everything I believe and everything I enjoy about cooking. You or I would work a different way. We’d find a thing that smelled interesting and probably spend two weeks finding different ways of learning how to do stuff with it. There’s not a lot of time and temperature to those things.

FL: The clock and thermometer push us into the era where cooking became science.

TH: Exactly. There is a place for science in food, but it’s interesting that the science is necessary for a particular kind of communication.

FL: And now it made us have to assume that the food is objective. You are what you use.

TH: How deeply philosophical does this get that quickly? It does my nut in!

Francis Lam

Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.