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The secret behind L.A.'s great kitchens

September 03, 2003|Leslie Brenner | Special to The Times

Who do you call if you need 17 ladles, a scimitar, a pair of clogs, two square ice cream scoops and a peeler?

If you are a chef in Los Angeles or Orange county, you call Chefs' Toys. In short order, a 23-foot truck will pull into your back alley, rattling with saute pans, spatulas and whisks.

In fact, every inch is crammed with all manner of gadgets and utensils: pastry tips, chef's knives, fish scalers and mandolines; melon ballers, butcher steels, immersion blenders and scoops. Ladles, in every conceivable size, are strapped to the back door. Pastry equipment is displayed on a counter just behind the driver's seat, just below a row of chef's hats. Next to the side door are bouquets of wooden and plastic spoons, rubber spatulas, tiny nonstick saute pans and neat rows of French peelers in orange, green, red, blue and yellow. Running along the length is a magnetized shelf holding knives -- Globals, Forschners and Brietos, a couple of Macs and other Japanese knives, and three lines of Messermeisters. Below them are the clogs and shoes.

This compact wonderland is where the chefs and sous-chefs, pastry chefs and line cooks of L.A.'s best restaurants buy much of their equipment. Bastide, Spago, Patina and L'Orangerie are all customers, as are Hotel Bel-Air and the Four Seasons. The selection of equipment crammed on this truck is as good as what you'll find at any wholesale store, they say.

But best of all, Chefs' Toys has unusual items that chefs don't even realize they need until they see them -- gnocchi paddles, bone-marrow scoops and other gizmos that can actually change the way they cook.

John Saslow hung up his whisk 2 1/2 years ago to drive the L.A. route. Five days a week, he travels the streets of L.A., Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, Santa Monica and the beach cities, stopping at restaurants and hotels. In all there are three Chefs' Toys trucks, each driven by a former chef.

"He pulls up in the alley, and half of my guys disappear," says Lee Hefter, executive chef at Spago. "They're buying knives off the Chefs' Toys truck."

If they are buying knives, Saslow is happy; he works on 100% commission. Prices are competitive with other wholesale suppliers, but to a civilian they seem like steals -- about 25% to 30% below retail.

The idea for Chefs' Toys began incubating when Steve Dickler, the company president, was working as a chef at Balboa Yacht Club in the mid-1980s. Frustrated that he couldn't find anyone to sharpen his knives, he bought a machine of his own and soon found himself sharpening knives for other chefs. "Next thing I know, I had a truck, and I quit my job." Before long he was selling cutlery. But the demand didn't stop there -- the chefs wanted hard-to-find utensils such as chinois, aspic cutters and sugar pumps for pulling sugar. Chefs' Toys was born.

Today the company, which became Chefs' Toys Advantage this year after merging with a company that supplies front-of-the-house items such as china and flatware, has two trucks dedicated to sharpening in addition to the three Chefs' Toys trucks.

(The truck sells only to professional kitchens, but the rest of us can shop at its Irvine showroom, or browse the Web site, www.chefstoys.net. For now, Web site purchases also require a phone call, but that is expected to change next year.)

One day last week, Saslow started his route by picking up some fry baskets in Rancho Dominguez. One of his customers, the executive chef at I Cugini in Santa Monica, had an emergency: His deep-fryer broke down. Saslow planned to help him jury-rig a temporary fryer.

Zipping across town on the 10 -- OK, maybe not zipping; Saslow's the rare driver who lets everyone merge in front of him -- he pulled into the alley behind I Cugini and entered the back door of the kitchen, where Chef Stephen Gialleonardo was slicing tuna.

"We're gonna set up a mock fry station with two pots," the chef explained as he climbed into the back of the truck, "and keep a fry thermometer in it to monitor the temperature."

"And hope nobody orders calamari!" said Saslow.

Since he was in the neighborhood, Saslow made a stop at Whist; he hadn't been there in a few weeks. Bypassing the valet parkers, he pulled around the south side of the hotel. Inside, Saslow passed a row of lockers to enter the pastry area of the kitchen.

"You should have come Friday, man!" said the pastry chef, Verite Mazzola, by way of greeting. "I need some cutters. And I need a whatchamacallit. And another peeler."

Out in the truck, Saslow sold her a set of nested round Italian pastry cutters ($17), two peelers (purple and yellow, $3.25 apiece), and a 10-inch whisk (the "whatchamacallit," $8.90).

Accouterment for a crowd

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