Kitchen Essentials of a Professional Chef: At Home with Claudia Sidoti

By: Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza At home with
Photo by Sue Kwon

Claudia Sidoti has been running kitchens since she was just 19 years old, when she opened her first restaurant, Onini, in New York City. Since then, Sidoti has had her hands in all aspects of the food industry: she’s been a food stylist for television commercials, served as the test kitchen director for Food Network, directed culinary content for Food Network Magazine, she’s launched her own catering company, and helped national restaurant groups to grow their businesses.

Currently, Sidoti is head chef and recipe developer at HelloFresh, where she brings her broad and unique knowledge of all things delicious to their monthly meal kits. She leant us her take on how to set up the perfect kitchen, what she always stocks in her pantry, where she splurges and where she goes for the bargain.

You’ve run test kitchens for companies like Food Network and currently work in recipe development at HelloFresh. How do you think about setting up a test kitchen vs. a home kitchen?

It’s pretty similar if you are someone who loves to cook or at least does it with some frequency. Start with a stocked pantry and freezer. Keep a good inventory in your fridge and make sure you have essential tools. Keep it as spotless as you can, and most importantly, organization is key!

What would someone expect to see in 19-year-old Claudia’s kitchen? How would that be different than your kitchen today?

It would be VERY different! Back in those days I was working around the clock in a restaurant. My kitchen was pretty sparse—I rarely cooked at home. Coffee and milk were essential, a few good quick snack items, and that was about it. Times have certainly changed! I always keep a well-stocked pantry and kitchen now, and try to cook / prepare meals at home as much as I can—especially on the weekends when I have the time!

Claudia Sitodi’s Top Ten Kitchen Essentials

Tools/Appliances

1. Food processor: A food processor is one of the most underutilized kitchen appliances that has way more uses than meets the eye! Most people only use it when they think they have a lot of chopping, but it’s actually great for so much more—everything from making salad dressing to puréeing soup, mixing pie dough or cookie dough, and, of course, chopping anything.

2. A set of good chef knives: Less accidents happen when you’re cutting and prepping vegetables or proteins with a good quality sharp knife. Additionally, you want to have the right knife for different kinds of prep. You don’t want to try to chop your veggies with a paring knife, nor use a serrated knife when prepping items like steak, chicken, or fish. Get a good set, care for them, make sure you sharpen them regularly, and they too should last a long time.

3. Cutting board: Having a solid wood cutting board like the John Boos wood board, really gives your kitchen a chef-like feel and it’s handy to have on the counter at all times so that you can prep fruit and veggies quickly. Add in a few plastic ones for your meat and fish! They’re more flexible so that you can carry them over the sink for easy cleanup and reduce the risk of cross-contamination.

4. Cast iron skillet: The trick to a great steak is getting the perfect sear and nothing does the trick better than a good, hot cast-iron skillet. Plus, if you care for them, they get better over time and last forever!

5. Large wooden salad bowl and spoons: Salads make the perfect addition to any meal or the main dish. Having a large wooden salad bowl with a good set of spoons is great because it gives you enough space for tossing and it instantly dresses up the presentation for a beautiful tablescape in any season.

Foods/ingredients

6. Eggs: Eggs are super versatile and speedy to cook—boiled, scrambled, omelette, frittata or fried, they are a great source of protein

7. Quick-cooking whole grains: Quinoa, brown rice, couscous, and oats are just a few of my favorite go-to grains. Nutritionally dense and surprisingly simple to prepare, they work great in healthy side dishes, bulked-up salads, comforting soups, and trendy grain bowls.

8. Canned tomatoes: These work great for a quick pasta sauce, chili, soup or pizza topping. Alternatively, you can used canned tomatoes to braise vegetables, whip up a Bloody Mary, tomato basil muffins,or even try your hand at some homemade ketchup.

9. Beans: Not only are beans an excellent source of protein, but they’re versatile and affordable. From cannellini and black beans, to red kidney and garbanzo beans (otherwise known as chickpeas), there’s endless ways to put them to use. You can use them in chili’s and Mexican-inspired meals like burritos and fajitas, grain bowls, and salads.

10. Maldon sea salt: I keep a box of Maldon sea salt flakes in my pantry at all times. I love it for finishing dishes, particularly salads, veggies, or just seared proteins like steak, chicken or fish. It’s an upgrade from classic kosher salt, and a little goes a long way!

A few of my favorite quick & easy meal combos using some of these ingredients are:

  • Quick pasta dishes with marinara/canned tomatoes or cheese and butter is super fast, comforting, and very affordable for those on a budget
  • Quesadillas and tacos are two dishes you can easily improvise—you can throw in cheese, any leftover protein and veggies, and load them up!
  • Millennials love avocado toast combos—it’s fast, nutritious and you can customize how you like it once you have the base. It’s also much cheaper to make at home than to order at a restaurant, and surprisingly simple!

When it comes to stocking your kitchen with tools, where should you pay top dollar and where can you go for the cheaper option?

What’s worth spending more on

  • Good quality knives
  • A food processor
  • Set of pots and pans

I think those are a few things where better quality = better results.

Go for the cheaper option

  • A basic veggie peeler is more than sufficient (but change them annually if possible, because the blades do get dull!)
  • A basic can opener is all that’s necessary—we don’t need bells and whistles here.
  • Even the toaster and blender categories can get a little crazy—a basic wide four-slot toaster does the trick and a standard blender, unless you’re a Vitamix person! I use a standard Waring Pro blender at home for most things.
Photo by Toa Heftiba

Where to splurge and where to save on food?

Go for cheaper

  • An everyday ingredient you don’t need to pay top dollar for is extra virgin olive oil. While it’s nice to have in your pantry, it’s best used as a finishing oil and on salads or veggies for extra flavor. When sautéing I recommend regular olive oil or even a neutral oil like vegetable or grapeseed.
  • Avoid fancy condiments and premade sauces unless you know you love them and will use them. They typically get opened, used a couple of times, and then the novelty wears off and your fridge is filled with half used jars that sit around way past expiration dates.

Where to splurge

  • Better quality dried pasta, like DeCecco vs. Ronzoni.
  • Canned tomatoes: cheaper brands tend to have a watery tomato product with less flavor.
  • Cheese is another one. Things like basic parmesan and cheddar really do matter. Go for the real deal here. If you want to save a little do a blend of parmesan and romano or Grana Padano. For Cheddar, I’m a fan of Cabots, Extra Sharp —it can be found at all supermarkets but it’s a little more money but completely worth it.

What’s the best part about cooking at home?

It’s just like swimming freestyle or dancing improv. It’s more about the moment, the mood, and experimenting with ingredients on hand or making something simple yet so specific to your personal taste, just the way you like it!

Which cookbooks are essential to a great home kitchen?

I lean into ethnic cookbooks or basics. It’s hard to warehouse a lot of books in a city apartment too, so I tend to find recipes and inspiration in magazines and online. I like Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year, Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook, Ottolenghi’s Plenty or Simple, The Joy of Cooking, anything Rick Bayless, and Mexican, Marcella Hazan for Italian, Naomi Duguid’s Burma and Rivers of Flavor—to name just a few!

Any recipes you’re loving lately?

My 91-year-old mother-in-law’s—I’ve been spending a lot of time with her lately and really trying to capture the essence of her cooking, so we talk shop a lot and on a good day, maybe run through a few favorites like West Indian Sorrel, a delicious Hibiscus Drink, Patties, and her signature Mac & Cheese. I like legacy recipes, and anything that comes from places like League of Kitchens. I love recipes that celebrate tradition, ethnic, and cultural diversity.

About the Expert

Claudia Sidoti is Head Chef and Recipe Developer at global meal kit leader HelloFresh. At the helm of the test kitchen, Claudia leads a team of seasoned recipe developers to create simple and delicious meals that hundreds of thousands of home cooks across the country can make in 30 minutes or less every night. Prior to joining HelloFresh, Claudia was Test Kitchen Director at Food Network Magazine.

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