Uses This

Interview

What do people use to get the job done?

Chris Ilias

Chris Ilias

Chef at Sweet Basil, Colorado

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Chris, but almost everyone in the kitchen calls me Ilias. I'm a chef at Sweet Basil in Vail, Colorado, right in the middle of the Rocky Mountains.

I'm in charge of organizing our prep team each day (stocks, soups, pastas, butchery, etc.), researching and purchasing all the food we use, and maintaining all our equipment. I also produce our in-house charcuterie program and, when necessary, function as our ad-hoc IT department. I work a lot.

What hardware do you use?

Every kitchen is a small warehouse of specially-purposed tools, from 9–10 different types of cooking appliances to prep tools like pasta rollers and food processors to small hand tools of all uses. Some of my favorites include our blenders, vacuum packer, and immersion circulators.

We use the Vita-Prep 3 for our blenders. They have a 3-hp motor, which is more powerful than some lawnmowers I've used. They turn almost anything you place inside into baby food, and if you let them run long enough, that baby food will start boiling. Need 3 pounds of ground pepper in 5 mins? They can do that too.

You'd never believe how useful a vacuum packing machine is until you get your hands on one. We have an UltraSource Ultravac 225, which is a tabletop chamber machine. We seal food in oxygen-proof bags that extend its shelf life and prevent oxidation. For soft foods, removing air from inside the bag and then letting the atmosphere gently crush it yields some interesting results: cucumber, for example, becomes slightly translucent and densely-textured with a more intense flavor. For more reasons that I can list, vacuum sealing food is awesome.

When you combine a vacuum packer with an immersion circulator, things get even more interesting. Coooking sous vide—literally, under pressure—is all the rage these days. The PolyScience Sous Vide Professional is a device that enables you to heat and circulate a bath of liquid with an accuracy of ±0.1°F. We vacuum seal food in bags and place them in this temperature-controlled bath for maximum control over texture and doneness. Also, since the food is sealed inside a bag, there's no flavor or aroma loss into the surrounding liquid.

Sharp things!

Knives are a pretty personal and important part of any chef's tools. I use only four on a daily basis. Top-to-bottom are slicer, paring, chef's, and boning. All of them except the chef's knife are a value brand (Mercer) I received while at culinary school. They're nothing you'd seek out, but they still serve me well because I keep them really sharp. The chef's knife is a Shun Ken Onion 8-inch that I've loved ever since I first held it. The handle and bolster are unlike almost anything you can find, and they fit right into my grip perfectly. I keep looking for a new knife to spice things up, but I can never find one as comfortable as this one. All cutting is done on a Boos Block 24" × 18" × 1½" edge-grain Maple cutting board.

I keep all my knives sharp with an Edge Pro Apex. It's a guided stone system that allows me to grind bevels at specific angles quickly and consistently. It lacks the romance of using bench stones but still offers complete control over the sharpening process. It can bring my Ken Onion back to razor-like status in about five minutes without much effort. I've tricked out this rig with Naniwa's Chosera stones, which cut faster and wear slower than stock ones. I go all the way up to a 10,000-grit stone that leaves a mirror polish. My steel is an F. Dick Multicut, and I always have a Microplane with me, the one without the handle.

While on the subject of sharp things, I'll mention my razor. I like to go to work clean-shaven each day, so I use (and love) my Merkur Heavy Duty Safety Razor, Astra Superior Platinum Blades, and Shavemac Silver Tip Badger Brush.

Chris has more spoons than this.

If there's anything that chefs are obsessed with more than their knives, it's their spoons. Our Executive Chef has an entire drawer in his desk for spoons, and our Pastry Chef has a small knife roll exclusively for hers. In the heat of battle, a spoon can stir, flip, baste, sauce, quenelle, and plate. They're also good for tasting things. I have four Gray Kunz spoons, one solid, one perforated, in each of the two available sizes. They really are quite lovely; the hole in the handle of the perf spoons—so you can identify them with a second's glance—is one of my favorite design elements ever. The only problem with Kuntz spoons is that everyone has them, so I keep a distinctive silver spoon with me at all times for tasting things.

For writing at work, there are two instruments: the obligatory Sharpie for labeling (always black) and the Pentel Twist-Erase. Pencil geeks know the Twist-Erase as the QE405, and it gets special mention because it's the best mechanical pencil ever made. It's simple, unadorned, and dependable. It has a long eraser and a large lead reservoir. I wrote with the same one from 1997–2007, not kidding. It finally broke, which crushed me because they're not made anymore. I eventually discovered Pentel now makes a frosted version, which is translucent but otherwise identical, but I had to resort to eBay to find the original black one. I searched for months before I found any, and then I bought two dozen. They should last me the rest of my life.

My wife and I have been very fortunate to acquire two new computers in the past year, a 13" MacBook Air and a 27" iMac, both of the current generation. We use them interchangeably, and they're two of the nicest computers we've ever had. I often bring work home: the Air is wonderfully lightweight and perfect for curling up on the couch, and the iMac's giant display makes photos and spreadsheets(!) super fun. At work, all I have is an old Wintel box; luckily, I get to supplement it with my iPhone 4S, which is with me at all times.

And what software?

I try to use as much local and organic produce as I can, but it's difficult up here in the Rockies. Our local produce season is just over three months long, so access to diverse and extremely fresh items is limited. We're also over a thousand miles from the nearest ocean, so sourcing fish is pretty trying.

That being said, we have an extremely close relationship with a local farm in western Colorado, Borden Farms. It's run by Guy & Lynn Borden, and they are two of the most lovely, down-to-earth people I've ever worked with. Their farm is 100% organic, and we wait all year long for their vegetables. They've started growing crops just for us, and we get to feature those items on our menu.

Going back to the traditional meaning of software, I use a variety of apps all day long. I work with lots of spreadsheets in an office environment, so Excel is a necessity. I keep all my email in sync with IMAP, using Mail on the Mac and iPhone and Thunderbird on Windows. Web surfing is in Safari on OS X and in Chrome on Windows. My digital life is completely held together by Dropbox & iCloud: it unifies my work computer, my home computers, and my phone. I keep all my work documents in Dropbox, along with data from 1Password and notes in Simplenote & Notational Velocity. Anything I don't have time to read in the moment gets sent to Instapaper. I can't use a Mac without QuickSilver. I've tried; it sucks.

It would be fair to say that my iPhone is my main computer. I use it all the time in the kitchen and to-and-from work: crunching numbers right next to the cutting board (PCalc), taking photos of food and notes I don't have time to type (Camera + iPhoto + Flickr), and working with to-do lists & reminders (Due + Listary). Because I need constant reminders to do things and can't be bothered to look for those reminders, Due gets heavy rotation. (Its recurring-alarm feature drives me nuts but is indispensable.)

Apps receiving less use but still worth a mention because of my affection for them include: TextWrangler (wrote this article in it), Flux (didn't expect to love it but do), Convertbot (handy and adorable), and SuperDuper! (of course you back up, right?).

Oh, in case you're wondering, I use Taylor of Old Bond Street's Mr. Taylor Shaving Cream and The Art of Shaving's Lemon After-Shave Balm.

What would be your dream setup?

I'm a hacker by nature, always tweaking things and trying to get more out of them. I'm never totally satisfied with anything, but at this point, I'm actually quite happy with most of my tools. Since you asked though...

I interested in a more authentic Japanese chef's knife, posssibly in white steel #2 (non-stainless). I love my Ken Onion, but I do wish it was thinner and lighter. I've been looking at a Masamoto KS 240mm Wa-Gyuto or a Gesshin Ginga 240mm Wa-Gyuto. Owning a Fluke 62 Mini Infrared Thermometer would make observing temperatures a lot easier.

For the iMac, I'm very curious to see what a Magic Trackpad would be like. A Drobo would be nice. I'd have a minimum of four 2GB drives. I'd use it for backups, storage, and scratch disks. I'd probably get a Doxie Go + Wi-Fi too.