Surgery in the Kitchen

During my apprenticeship (also known as a stage) at El Bulli, I was given the task of wrapping little squares of fragile seawater gelatin around postage-stamp-sized pats of butter. These were garnishes for a tapas dish. I slipped a teaspoon handle under a corner of the gelatin, but it tore. Then I tried using the blade of a butter knife. It tore again.

“Here,” said my friend Chris Edwards, a chef from South Carolina, handing me a small offset spatula. It looked more suited to icing a cupcake. “Without one of these around here,” Chris drawled, “it’s like missing a hand.” Chris had had a dozen of them shipped from home, which he later sold to the other stagiaires for 10 euros each.

Once upon a time, ordinary tablespoons finished the most breathtakingly beautiful plates at restaurants like Alain Ducasse in Paris or the French Laundry in Napa. But some of today’s most experimental restaurant dishes require more delicate tools. I’m talking about El Bulli’s spherical potato gnocchi with consommĂ© of roasted potato skin garnished with seawater butter ravioli. Or Alinea’s pear juice curry ball shot: a shot glass holding a curry-flavored cocoa butter ball filled with pear juice that explodes in your mouth. Grant Achatz said in a recent conversation with Michael Ruhlman that during his stage at El Bulli he was shocked to see chefs plating with tweezers. Now, tweezers are de rigueur in his own kitchen at Alinea, along with the small offset spatula and other instruments that look like they were borrowed from a surgeon’s tray.

El Bulli has a series of cookbooks available (you can buy them on the restaurant’s website), and Achatz plans to publish his recipes soon online or in book form. If you try to make these dishes, a large part of the fun will be in the presentation. To get it right, you will need three tiny tools: a small spatula, scissors, and tweezers. Even if you’re not delving into molecular gastronomy, these implements can help you make a simpler meal a visual delight.

Small Sized Spatula (Model 1304 or 1305)
By Ateco, $2.60-$2.80

A small spatula like the one Chris introduced me to will allow you to plate hot gelatin in a neat row, one of El Bulli’s signature dishes. (The little jelly bars are made in flavors like rose, olive, and eucalyptus and lined up on a long plate.) It will also help you lift your diminutive pieces of neutral caramel (less sweet than your average caramel) off Silpat and wrap them around raw quail eggs when making El Bulli’s Golden Eggs.

Ateco is the professional pastry chef’s preferred brand for cake-decorating supplies like pastry tips. Its smallest offset spatula comes with a black plastic or wooden handle and a 4.25-inch flexible stainless steel blade, offset or straight. I prefer the offset, but either one places items precisely. The spatulas are especially good for sticky things like gelatins, allowing you to pick pieces up with the very tip of the blade, and flex the blade away when sticking the gelatin back to the plate, without leaving a smudgy trace.

Ateco’s slender handle feels like a natural extension of your hand. Other cake-decorating supply companies and even art supply houses make similar spatulas but with noticeably more bulbous or sharper-edged handles, which can become an uncomfortable distraction.

The plastic-handled Ateco spatula is dishwasher safe, but the wooden one is not.

No. 5 Non-Stick Scissors
By Fiskars, $15.13

These scissors are perfect for snipping tiny fanned fronds from branches of wild fennel or separating individual fluffy blossoms of Szechuan button flowers to top dehydrated milk wafers. This combination is a controversial El Bulli dish called Electric Milk, because the buds numb your tongue and make you feel as if you’ve been licking a battery. In your less adventurous moments, use the little scissors to snip purple chive blossom flowers as a garnish for your salad.

Fiskars makes the trademark plastic-orange-handled scissors found in drawers worldwide. It also makes tools ranging from axes—with orange-tipped handles—to paper hole punches. The company history dates back to 1649, when Dutch manufacturers established a forge in the small village of Fiskars, Finland. The village today remains the thriving home to an arts and crafts cooperative.

The No. 5 model fits in the palm of your hand and has needle-nose tips. Though the finger loops look small, they’re surprisingly easy to use, even by chefs with sausagelike fingers.

The nonstick coating will significantly reduce tacky residue, but it should more correctly be billed as stick resistant. A quick wipe with a damp cloth should remove anything that adheres to the blades, like gelée.

A black plastic sheath is sold separately, and at only $1.93 it’s worth it to protect the precise, fine tips.

Tweezers (Model 24-SA-PI Style 24)
By Excelta, $12.17

Tweezers come in handy when you’ve made a mistake in plating—if you’ve placed a chervil leaf backward on a dome of caviar, for instance, or a borage blossom has sunk too deep into the pork fat sauce next to your oysters. You will also find it useful for plucking eggshells and lemon seeds out of things you’re making—as much as you try to fish those out with your fingers, they always seem to escape.

Cosmetics tweezers are designed to pluck objects rather than manipulate them carefully, so they can destroy delicate elements of a dish. Excelta, on the other hand, supplies hand tools primarily to electronics assembly and manufacturing industries.

This model has grooved surfaces on the inside of its tips, which allow you to hold objects securely. Grooved finger pads on both tweezer arms offer a controlled, comfortable grip. The curved shape of the arms allows you to place or retrieve items while keeping your fingers out of the way.

You’re Not Crazy

Obsessive-compulsive cooks truly believe that every minute detail of a dish will affect how much it’s enjoyed. These are the kinds of people who freak out if their pancakes aren’t all the same size and perfectly round; if one chocolate chip cookie has two chips fewer than the others; or if their brunoise isn’t chopped in identical, uniformly tiny cubes.

If you are one of these people, or know somebody who is, tiny tools will offer the gift of control. Never again will you feel angst when a candied violet falls face down in cupcake ganache. Little tweezers or the offset spatula to the rescue.

The extremely detail-oriented chefs among us aren’t crazy. We all know flavor is not just taste. It’s also smell and, yes, presentation. The French like to say that you eat a dish first with your eyes, then with your mouth. Let these tiny tools be your culinary beauty secrets.