FOR THE FOODIE WHO HAS EVERYTHING: THE BEST KITCHEN TOWELS
From a six-burner stove and pot-filler faucet to nonstick baking-sheet liners and a high-end chef’s knife, this is the age of professional equipment for the home kitchen. But for some reason, one of the most important tools a restaurant cook relies on every single day has yet to cross over.
I’m talking about towels, kitchen towels—or side towels, as they’re called in the trade.
At cooking school, their importance is impressed upon students straightaway. Allen Smith, my teacher at Peter Kump’s, patiently watched everyone fumble with tying apron strings just so, but brought us up sharp if we forgot to tuck in a side towel as instructed. Some 20 years later, Allen is now culinary director at the Maybury gourmet food shop and café in Dubai, but as I imagined, his reaction is pretty much the same. “Well, otherwise, it’s like cooking naked!” he wrote. “You’re completely unprotected and not ready to remove a hot pot that’s boiling with a mind of its own, or rescue a baked something from the oven. Then there is the constant need for clean, dry hands.”
Restaurant cooks may use some side towels for pot holders and others for wiping down his or her station. (Since a damp towel conducts heat quickly, one dedicated to “wet work” never doubles as a pot holder.) They can also be used for stabilizing a mixing bowl while an ingredient is poured with one hand and whisked with the other, patting herbs dry, gripping the skin of a fish while removing it, or erasing a smudge of sauce on a plated dish.
Anthony Bourdain gave them a shout-out in Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. ”… messy station equals messy mind. This explains why side towels are hoarded like gold by good line cooks. When the linen order arrives, the smart cookies fall onto it voraciously, stashing stacks of the valuable objects anywhere they can hide them. One cook I knew would load them above the acoustic tile in the ceiling, along with his favorite tongs …. I’m sure that years later, though the restaurant has changed hands many times, future generations of cooks are still finding stashes of fluffy, clean side towels.”
Aside from linen tea towels that cost the earth (and live in a drawer until taken out for a special occasion), the options available to home cooks are dismal. Traditional twill, terry-cloth, or waffle-weave offerings aren’t nearly as thick and durable as they used to be, and even though IKEA’s ultracheap (at 80 cents) Tekla towel has its fans, I can never use one without thinking I’ve gotten exactly what I’ve paid for.
Real value is more along the lines of what you see above. Imported from Germany and made of 100 percent cotton, the weave of these towels is such that they seem to get denser—thus more resistant to heat and stains—with each washing. Pick up one and scrunch it in your hand, and not only will you’ll want to cook something, anything—but you’ll understand what the professionals are talking about. In fact, the gray-and-white-checked version was once standard issue at the Culinary Institute of America; in Making of a Chef, Michael Ruhlman noted that the CIA imported the towels from Germany because it couldn’t find acceptable ones in the United States.
And now they’re available at J.B. Prince, a top-drawer purveyor of professional culinary equipment that somehow manages to be old school and ahead of the curve, all at the same time. I’ve long been a fan; the Wüsthof knives I bought all those years ago for cooking school came from the store, and they’re still going strong.
As is Judy Prince, the founder of the business. She noticed the towels on a visit to a European department store with a lavish cookware section. “They carried different brands of all things,” she said, “but only one brand of towel.” That was enough to pique her interest, and when she discovered the towels had been made the same way by the same family business in Germany since 1897, she got the ball rolling, and imported her first shipment a few months ago.
“We’ve had interest all across our customer base,” Judy said. “Chefs are snapping them up left and right, and the nonprofessionals coming into the showroom are buying them for placemats and to dry homemade pasta on.” Although she warned me that the towels do shrink after washing, I found that they’re so generously sized to begin with, it doesn’t much matter when folded and used to move hot pots around on the stove.
“The thing is, I’d been noticing that in lots of restaurants, the runners in the front of the house had really beautiful towels slung over their shoulder,” she explained. “Quatorze Bis [one of Manhattan's classic French bistros], for example. It really added something to how those guys looked. And in some restaurants in Berlin and Scandinavia, they had very long towels—four feet, maybe longer—hanging off the back of their aprons. It gave them a certain elegance. The visuals are so cool, it gets the mind going.”
And how. Either one of the extra-long towels shown below will easily wrap around my largest rondeau, and just thinking about that conjures beef bourguignon or cider-braised pork shoulder. If I were more enterprising, however, I’d figure out how to sew a bunch of them together serape-fashion and have a new outfit for the holidays.
Premium German side towels (top photo): In addition to the array of colors shown, they come in white; $7.20 each and $57.60 for a pack of 10 (same color).
Premium oversized towels (bottom photo): At left, a super-strong 50-50 cotton-linen blend ($17.90 each and $143.20 for a pack of 10) and at right, 100 percent cotton ($13.90 each and $111.20 for a pack of 10).