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The sharpest knives in the drawer

And that's just the beginning. Here's how Oxo tools became the gold standard for serious cooks.

March 08, 2006|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

New York — IF you happen to have just bought the best salad spinner on the planet, here's some bad news: At the giant International Home & Housewares Show beginning Sunday in Chicago, Oxo International is introducing one that is even better -- and so gorgeous you could actually serve from it.

But if you hate your steamer basket, here's some great news: Oxo has finally tackled the infuriating design of one of the most essential kitchen tools. When you try it, you'll wonder why cooks ever settled for anything clumsier.

And then there's the new Oxo pastry brush, with silicone bristles cut to capture and convey liquids, and the new Oxo kitchen shears, with a special stripper to separate herbs from their stems, and the new Oxo mixing bowls, stainless steel on the inside to retain heat and cold and plastic on the outside to protect the hands.

Every one has been "Oxoized," as company employees say, to add what they variously refer to as the "wow" factor, the "eureka" factor or just the "why give a damn" factor.

Ever since Oxo came out with a Good Grips vegetable peeler in 1990 that changed the way America prepped mashed potatoes, the company has become so known for its hyper-clever takes on everyday things that the wow factor should be increasingly difficult to come by. But spending a few hours at the company's sprawling, sunny home base in the Chelsea Market here, where about 40 employees devote their days to sweating the extremely small stuff, makes it pretty clear that there is almost madness to the method.

God, after all, took a rest on the seventh day. "Oxonians," as they call themselves, can work for years to perfect a single product only to start trying to find something wrong with it as soon as it arrives from the factory. Good is never enough.

"A lot of this is just a culture of people constantly looking for something wrong, not only other people's products but ours as well," said Alex Lee, the company's president, sitting in a room with a Planogram, a model for store displays that hangs floor to ceiling with every one of the 500-some Oxo innovations.

Some of those are revolutionary, some evolutionary, but all come to those four walls in much the same way: all ideas, all the time. You might not want to be married to an Oxonian, many of whom admit they are anal-retentives who would pick the most microscopic nit, but it's hard not to admire what they produce.

Spinner success

CONSIDER the new salad spinner. Oxo's original version worked like a one-handed dream, with a very simple pumping mechanism modeled on a child's toy substituting for the old pull cord that had to be tugged repeatedly to spin the basket holding the greens.

Then consumers started asking for a lid that could be used to turn the spinner into a storage container. The greens would last longer that way, Lee said, but there was no real reason for the lid, aside from the fact that "consumers were hesitant to put the mechanism in the refrigerator."

So a snap-on white plastic lid was added. And then consumers started saying they wished they had some way of "knowing when the greens were done," according to Michelle Sohn, category director for kitchen products.

That inspired a change to see-through plastic for the top with the pump, in two layers that pop apart for easy cleaning.

Once top-down visibility was a possibility, the formerly clear bowl could be made of stainless steel, as some European salad spinners are. The result is a utilitarian product made worthy of the dinner table.

"We never consider anything finished," said Larry Witt, Oxo's vice president of sales and market development.

Even the swivel vegetable peeler has been modified repeatedly and now comes in three styles, including one with a replaceable blade.

The steamer basket, completely new this spring after years in development, provides a different illustration of how Oxoization works. First, Sohn said, "We took the thing and tackled all the things people hate." No. 1 on the list turned out to be the ring in the center, which is too small to grab, gets too hot to handle and takes up too much space when something like a whole cabbage or slab of fish needs to be steamed.

The Oxo pop-up handle is easier to grab, is made from a heat-resistant material and comes with a slit in the center where a fork can be slipped in to make a secondary handle. It also unscrews, and the whole steamer folds flat for storage.

Finally, the spiky legs were replaced with flat feet that are taller than normal so that more water can be placed underneath for longer steaming without refilling the pot.

Throughout the whole process, "we did a lot of vegetable steaming," Sohn said. Products are always tested in the Oxo kitchen, in employees' homes, at a cooking school. And once the first steamers were in from the factory, Sohn said, she immediately handed one to a tester.

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