This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Pans do not get the credit they deserve.
Knives steal the culinary limelight because they are more dangerous, more sexy, they photograph more dramatically, and because in the hands of a maestro they can be used to great effect. But it's the pans that make the difference.
This is because it is pans that impart the flavour, whether they are being used to sauté vegetables, to fry a humble fishcake or acting as the vehicle for a sauce by reducing it to the correct consistency.
Quite how crucial pans are in the development of any kitchen can be gauged by the significant improvement in the complexity of the food served from the same kitchen when it is brand new and when it is a year old.
At the beginning, the flavours tend to be somewhat anodyne as all the pans are new, clean and unscathed. Several months later, when these same pans have been coated in oil or butter, bashed around, subject to intense heat and generally roughed up, they are able to impart so much more.
As they are constantly used for a variety of different dishes, certain pans become firm friends. Just before Christmas I asked seven top chefs to nominate and describe their own favourite pans.
I began with Heston Blumenthal on a crackly mobile en route from The Fat Duck in Bray to the Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge, where his new restaurant 'Dinner by Heston Blumenthal' will open on 31 Jan.
He began by saying that his current favourite, certainly for versatility, was a sous vide bag, an airtight plastic bag that many chefs now use for slow cooking in a water bath for up to 72 hours. When I refused to accept this, Blumenthal laughed and added, 'Well, in that case it has to be a cast iron Staub casserole dish that I bought in France many years ago.'
'What I love cooking in this are one-pot dishes on the barbecue like braised rabbit with fennel. I still take it on holiday and when we've been to the local market I like barbecuing over vine trimmings, starting with colouring the onions and then adding the rest of the ingredients. It's very sociable because I'm outside, and challenging too because the pan has to be moved around all the time.'
Shaun Hill can remember precisely where he bought his favourite pan 25 years ago, but then he does use it every day in his kitchen at The Walnut Tree Inn, Abergavenny in Wales.
'It's a stainless steel zabaglione pan that I bought from a travelling van the first week I started at Gidleigh Park in Devon. It was expensive and I had just come from a financially unsuccessful restaurant venture in Stratford so I cannot imagine what prompted me to buy it. But I'm delighted I did.
'It is deep and perfectly rounded with a large hollow handle. I whisk egg yolks and wine over hot water to make sabayon or the base for a hollandaise sauce which I make every day. I also use the pan cold to whisk egg whites for meringues or to conjure up salad dressings. There are no corners so it whisks like a dream. Nothing can quite replace it.'
Age and familiarity connect the favourite pans of Michael Romano, Culinary Director of the Union Square Group, New York, and Michel Troisgros of the three-star Maison Troisgros in Roanne, France.
Like Hill, Romano can remember precisely where he bought the heavy-duty grill pan designed by the late Michael Lax for manufacturer Copco and made in Denmark. It is large, 24.5-cm square, comes with a long wooden handle and weighs at least five kilos but it has travelled everywhere with him since 1979.
'I was working then in Switzerland for a very wealthy businessman who had plans to turn his estate into a first-class golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, and an equally fine restaurant for which the consultant was the top French chef Michel Guérard. I was the day-to-day chef cooking for potential members.
'The club never materialised but the pan stayed. The wooden handle is a tad less secure than it once was but it still grills as beautifully as ever. And whenever I cook with it, a flood of happy memories come back.'
The memories associated with Michel Troisgros' favourite pan, a steel frying pan, go back even further. 'In the kitchen at Maison Troisgros, there is one pan that is very, very well worn because my father Pierre, and my late uncle Jean, used to cook with it. I treasure it. As the French saying goes, 'It's the old frying pans that make the best omelettes.'
Despite her new high-tech kitchen at the River Café in west London, Ruth Rogers loves coming home and cooking on a cast iron ridged grill that she places over two gas hobs.
'At home my kitchen is in the living space with no extraction other than the windows so this pan is the closest I can get to achieving a professional, grilled effect. I use it for everything: toasting bruschetta, slices of aubergine or a sirloin steak. I have a beautiful oven that does a vast range of functions, including grilling from the top down, but I have hardy ever used any of them. My cast iron grill pan is the only way to go.'
An old, deep, big carbon steel pan with a wooden handle is Jung Sik Yim's favourite pan in his kitchen at Jung Sik Dang restaurant in Seoul, South Korea, and neatly bridges the gap between his years as a student chef and now as a head chef.
'I bought this pan in 2004 in New York's Chinatown when I was at the Culinary Institute of America so that I could cook for my friends. Now every morning in the restaurant I cook family meals for my staff in the same pan. It's round and has a big cooking area so it's an excellent pan for all types of Asian food: fried rice, stir fried pork, spicy noodle soup and so on. This pan is cheap, from an unknown manufacturer and is now all banged-up. But all the dishes I have cooked from this pan have been for the people I love. That's why it's my favourite pan by far.'
Finally, pastry chef extraordinaire Claire Clark is back in London after working at The French Laundry in California, looking for the right backing and site for her own pâtisserie – and the next home for her Tarte Tatin pan.
'I bought this 15 years ago at an antique shop in Wendover', Clark explained, 'because, although ever so slightly dented, the lining is in extraordinary condition. It has a massive ten-inch-diameter flat base and completely straight sides, no handle and it's extremely heavy.
'It makes the perfect Tarte Tatin because the base is just the right thickness so that the butter and sugar caramelise perfectly without the apples getting too soft. No other pan I have ever used does this so well. It's very precious to me.'
The image above is of one of Nick's own favourite pans from www.calphalon.com