This is part of a series exploring the cultural, technological and social trends that are informing the way we dine and select what we eat. Read the rest in the series here.
Friends and family greeted the news of the arrival of our new Vitamix blender with the combination of awe and excitement normally reserved for the birth of a child. People who have never so much as boiled water began raving to me about the machine's ability to create smoothies of unprecedented texture and to generate enough heat to make hot soups right in the jar.
Their enthusiasm is consistent with reviews of the blender just about everywhere. Online it receives the kind of praise most companies can only dream of: "In love with my Vitamix," tweets one disciple. "I've been converted. Vitamix rocks my WORLD," says another.
The Vitamix and its even heavier-duty cousin, the Vita-Prep, are standard equipment in professional kitchens and chefs are some of the most vocal proponents of the machines. This has translated into big business for the nearly 100-year-old American company. Net sales in the United States in 2012 increased 52 per cent and tripled over the previous four years.
That these expensive blenders have become a fetish item among regular home cooks is part of an overall move that's seeing more and more professional-level gadgets finding a place in people's home kitchens.
Inspired, perhaps, by the likes of Nathan Myhrvold, who had no professional chef training before launching his six-volume masterwork cookbook, Modernist Cuisine, enthusiastic home cooks are eager to replicate the kind of cutting-edge cooking that goes on in avant garde kitchens. This, however, means they need the equipment to do so.
Consequently, things such as immersion circulators – basically a submersible heater that keeps water at a very accurate temperature – that migrated out of science labs and into professional kitchens are now vying for counter space in people's homes.
"I bought mine mainly because I wanted to try this duck leg recipe I saw in a magazine," says Meghan Green, a self-described foodie and passionate home cook in Calgary. "Now I use it all the time. Last night I made asparagus and it poaches eggs incredibly. For me it's no more unusual than putting something in the microwave or firing up the barbecue."
Immersion circulators are fundamental to sous-vide cooking. The technique involves vacuum sealing ingredients in plastic and then submerging them in hot water until they reach the desired interior temperature. (Cuisinart makes a stainless-steel vacuum sealer that retails for just under $200.) Companies such as Sous Vide Supreme make all-in-one "water ovens," but because they don't circulate the water they aren't considered as high tech as immersion versions.
Among the most iconic of modernist tools is the iSi whip, a cylindrical canister with a handle and trigger that is loaded with nitrous oxide. It uses gas and pressure to create the foams and espumas that are to modernist cooking what butter is to classical French food. Once a secret tool of chefs such as Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal, they can now be bought at Canadian Tire.
When Nick and Dagmara Kokonas decided to renovate the kitchen in their 19th century home in Chicago they drew inspiration from one of the most avant garde kitchens in the United States. Kokonas, the co-owner of Alinea, a Michelin three-star and San Pellegrino top-10-list award-winning restaurant, outfitted his kitchen with a blast chiller, sous-vide station, a $2,000 La Spaziale Mini Vivaldi II espresso machine and a La Cornue range with a flat-top cooking station – essentially a griddle with a circular heating ring that radiates different temperatures across its surface.
"The flat top is a revelation," Kokonas told Food and Wine Magazine. "I knew I wanted a flat top after watching the chefs use it in the restaurant."
Of course, it's not just would-be molecular gastronauts and deep-pocketed restaurateurs who are drawn to the precision and power of professional equipment. Sometimes, the situation works in reverse. The German-engineered, French-manufactured Thermomix "portable kitchen station" was designed for the home cook, but is now commonly found in Michelin-starred kitchens around the world. This despite not doing any traditional advertising and not being available in any stores.
The three-kilogram machine retails for about $1,500, but acts as a stove, steamer, blender, food processor and stand mixer. It comes with its own built-in scale and is practically self cleaning. The company says it sells the equivalent of two machines every minute.
The line between the professional and the home kitchen is blurring. With the rise of foodie culture, more and more home cooks want to recreate the dishes they eat in restaurants and see on TV and in magazines. Some of the gadgets they are stocking their shelves with are destined to go the way of the indoor flameless marshmallow roaster, pizza scissors and onion goggles, while others will become indispensable tools that are destined to change the way we cook and eat.
If only our kitchens came with a brigade to wash, prep and clean up, we'd never have to eat out again.