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Travel + Culture

Packing Iron (or Steel, Anyway)

What do you need to make a borrowed kitchen feel like home?
knives in suitcase

Back in the days when you might be offered a meal on a cross-country flight I asked the extraordinary food writer Jonathan Gold if he ever ate on airplanes. He shrugged his shoulders. “Sure,” he replied. There was a pause. Then his eyes narrowed a little bit and he looked at me as if he was not entirely sure how much intelligence to credit me with. And slowly, as if he were explaining something obvious to a small child, he said “I bring my own food, of course.”

Well, Jonathan, I pack my knives when I travel, and I’m packing them this week. My family and I are spending the summer in Hamburg, Germany, just south of the Danish border and near the North Sea. We’ve rented an apartment not far from the place I’ll be working. I expect I’ll have to learn a lot about how to shop and cook in a language I don’t speak at all, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend three months chopping with someone else’s knives.

I put everything in the knife roll I used to bring to work in restaurants, which is small enough that I have to pick and choose. This, I find, clarifies the mind, and over a decade’s worth of trips (Thanksgivings, wedding dinners, visits to food-obsessed friends) I’ve figured out what I really need. It’s almost exactly the same list I’d offer to someone trying to outfit their kitchen. And so:

The knives
•A chef’s knife: it slices, it dices, it juliennes. It’s the knife I use most
•A paring knife: for all the same tasks as the chef’s knife, but smaller
•A serrated bread knife: because good bread deserves respect
•A steel for keeping the knives sharp: because dull knives are no fun to work with, and dangerous too

The hand tools
•A vegetable peeler: faster and less waste than using a knife
•A pair of tongs: metal fingers for moving hot food
•A heat-resistant rubber spatula or two: like a wooden spoon, but you can get every last bit out of the pan
•A Japanese Benriner mandoline: perfect, uniform slices and the fastest shredding ever
•A medium-sized balloon whisk: worth it just for the ability to make mayonnaise, but useful for whipped cream and emulsified salad dressings
•A Microplane grater: best kitchen widget ever. Zest a lemon, grate a shallot, shave some cheese for the toddler’s pasta
•A meat thermometer: because overcooking meat is a shame

At the last minute, the former restaurant cook in me can’t help from including these two knives, though I’d leave them behind if pressed
•A boning knife: for cutting a chicken into pieces or cleaning up a rack of lamb
•A 10” long, delicate, super-sharp slicer: for shaving paper-thin slices off a pork roast or a ham.

Among the things that are staying behind
•The beautiful hand-made Bob Kramer knife I ordered for Tara the week after we met. I had a hunch we’d still be together when I reached the top of his waiting list a year and a half later. Thank god I was right.
•A Japanese Honesuki boning knife. It’s brilliant, especially for poultry, but needs regular sharpening on a whetstone.
•The Japanese soft iron one-sided vegetable knife I bought in the Tsukji fish market, because the edge is so delicate.

Of course, we’re going to Germany, so it’s not like I won’t be able to find good knives if I need them. But still—my knives are my friends, and I’m leaving more than enough of those behind for the next few months. Wish me luck.