The $5,000 home-cooked dinner

Can an instant gourmet kitchen make you an instant master chef?

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By Rachel Lehmann-Haupt, MSN Money

"The best meals are made at home," said my man the other day. I wasn't sure whether the comment was just an observation or a gentle hint to start cooking for him more.

Either way, I couldn't disagree -- except I would add that the best home-cooked meals are the ones with a gourmet touch. The problem with creating such meals is that they seem to require two luxuries I have so far had to do without: time and the right kitchen equipment.

On a recent afternoon, I headed to the Culinary Institute of America in the lush Hudson River Valley to remedy the latter problem. I've had a lifelong love of cooking. As a child, I entertained myself in my parents' kitchen by pretending I was the hostess of a cooking show. But I've never had formal training nor spent much time considering the quality of my kitchen tools. So spending an afternoon with two of the world's 61 master chefs is a rare opportunity. (Becoming a master chef takes more than 10 years of schooling and apprenticeship and then a rigorous test in every cooking competency.) Watch the master chefs work

Add to that the fact that I will learn to pull off said gourmet meal in under an hour using the $5,000 Masters Collection -- a new 80-piece set of kitchen equipment custom-designed by the CIA faculty -- and the experience promises to hit a new height of luxury. The real question, of course, is whether I'll be able to re-create what they teach me when I get home.

Victor Gielisse and Ronald DeSantis, two master chefs at the CIA, designed the collection after asking each of the 85 faculty chefs to imagine their ideal set of kitchen tools. Gielisse and DeSantis considered everything they heard, and developed a collection to suit the needs of their fussy colleagues.

They created a way for liquid to drain from a colander without leaving a puddle at the bottom. They made a pepper grinder in which you can adjust the size of the grinds, a spoon with curves that fit perfectly into the curve of a pot, and a saucepan with a handle that is an ergonomic ideal, so it doesn't strain your wrist when you lift it. Check out the gourmet kitchen set

They lined their pans with a thin layer of copper that evenly distributes heat. They designed a whisk with wires loose enough to create proper aeration. Even the mixing bowls have measurements carved into the side in order to save the step of using a measuring cup.

"I don't call them gadgets or equipment. This is my kitchen jewelry," says Gielisse, standing over a saucepan of bubbling chicken stock. We are cooking saffron-infused risotto with porcini mushrooms and veal scaloppine. "You want cookware that is an extension of your arm, a natural part of your body."

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I tell him that average consumers spend less than $20 on each piece of their kitchen equipment. He rolls his eyes and shoots me a glance that suggests I've been spending too much time with the wrong sort of people.

DeSantis, who started cooking when he was in the Marines, jumps in. "Chefs say there are two types of cuisine; there's good cuisine and bad cuisine. We like to believe that we're experts in good cuisine. It's all about the selection of ingredients, handling the ingredients in the right way -- and using the right equipment."

The new collection is designed for status as well as form and function, of course. In the age of the open kitchen, the Masters Collection is intended to signal to your guests that your kitchen is a place where serious cooking happens.

As teachers at the CIA, Gielisse and DeSantis have turned out dozens of celebrity chefs, from TV personality Sara Moulton to Thaddeus DuBois, the former executive pastry chef at the White House. "The CIA philosophy is to teach technique over recipes or types of cuisine," says Gielisse. "The idea is that once you understand the techniques, your creativity can take over."

Gielisse now turns away from the stock, pouring a little bit of olive oil into an empty aluminum saucepan lined with copper.

"The copper is a superconductor, so it gets hot very quickly," says DeSantis, throwing in a cup of minced onions. "The aluminum helps to distribute and even the heat so it stays hot nice and long, and it doesn't capture any flavors."

Gielisse adds some bright red saffron to the boiling stock, which quickly turns a reddish gold. He gently stirs the onions with his other hand.

"Feel how the curve of the spoon glides along the curve of the pan," he says. "We're sweating the onions over low heat to build flavor. We want to highlight the rice, mushroom and cheese, and onions give the background flavor."

Once the onions turn glassy, he pours in a little bit of white wine and explains that liquid releases proteins at the bottom of the pan, which is where the flavor lives. After stirring for a few minutes, he pours in the rice.

"If a pan doesn't properly distribute heat then you get hot spots and a lot of sticking and burning," says DeSantis. "The product doesn't come out right and then people get discouraged."

DeSantis then picks up the pot of boiling stock and pours half of it over the rice. "Just enough to cover the rice," he says. "Then start stirring constantly so the

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pieces of rice bang against each other and release starch. The fine particles of starch on the outside will give the creaminess."

With the risotto on its way, he then turns to the cutting board to chop some parsley.

"We lengthened the bolster of the knives so you can sharpen them from end to end," he says. "It's a 'balance-forward' handle, which means we moved the thick part forward so it balances better in your hand." What makes a perfect knife?

As we talk, DeSantis cooks the veal in the pan that held the onions. When the veal is golden on both sides, he and Gielisse remove the pieces to a plate and begin preparing the sauce in the same pan. DeSantis adds some butter, lemon juice, lemon zest, the chopped parsley and some pepper and salt. When the sauce is bubbling, he pours it over the veal sitting on a plate next to the pan of the creamy risotto. He sprinkles some finely grated Parmesan cheese over the risotto.

I look at my watch and see that meal has come together in about 20 minutes. And the first bite tastes even better than if the meal had been placed in front of me at a restaurant, because I've seen the process from beginning to end.

Now to try it at home. A few days later I pull out the ingredients and the equipment I need from the Masters Collection. With the master chefs' voices in my head, I set to work sweating my onions and building my sauce.

Unfortunately, while I've got the chefs' fancy cookware, I don't have their years of fancy education -- so I make some crucial mistakes that have nothing to do with my high-priced equipment. While cooking the risotto, I blast the heat too high and the water evaporates too quickly, so the consistency ends up more like rolling pebbles. I also get a little overzealous with the lemon zest on the veal.

But my man appreciates the effort. And even though I'm still far from being a master chef, the Masters Collection makes me feel one step closer.

Produced by Anh Ly

Published April 3, 2008