The holiday season brings through Dish's mail slot a steady flow of kitchenware catalogs — the tonier ones often featuring seductive photos of copper pots and pans. Most of the good stuff is made in France, where it is sold through restaurant-supply houses, such as E. Dehillerin and La Bovida in Paris. Anyone who's watched Pierre Franey tour restaurant kitchens on his PBS series, Cooking in France, will have noticed that copper cookware is standard issue in commercial French kitchens.
In this country it's a different story. Restaurant-supply companies deal mainly in kitchen stock made of aluminum or stainless steel, leaving to such boutique retail outlets as Williams-Sonoma and Sur la Table the business of selling copper.
Why the difference?
A big factor is the expense, according to Peter Taber, president of Hobee's California restaurants in Palo Alto. Copper's superior heat conductivity makes it ideal for sauces, but “almost everything we do is short-order cooking,” he says, “and so most of our food is sauteed, grilled, or pan-fried. We use mostly stainless steel.” Those implements are so heavily used, Taber says, that they have to be resurfaced every few months.
The wide cost disparity between copper and the lesser metals has been amplified by the long recession, which has left restaurateurs eager to cut costs, according to Bob Mathis, co-owner of New West Restaurant Design and Supply in San Rafael. “These days, the first question out of somebody's mouth is, 'Do you sell used equipment?' ” he says. He also notes that “copper doesn't hold up well with the acidic foods” that are common in saute kitchens — a fact that further widens the cost gap.
Maybe the most interesting aspect of copper is not that American restaurants don't use it, but that French restaurants still do. Taber thinks there might be a “theft issue” in American kitchens that would be less common in France, “where the owner is so often the chef. He's back there all the time.” Beyond that, there's “the pride they take in their food. It's so much a part of their culture, and copper cookware is a cultural marker that says, 'I'm serious about this.' “
Vive la difference.
If you're not going home for Thanksgiving and don't feel like cooking, maybe going out is the answer. Lots of big-name restaurants are serving prix fixe holiday dinners. Among them: Campton Place; Gate Five (Sausalito); MacArthur Park (Palo Alto); Yoyo; McCormick and Kuleto's; Julius' Castle; and the Redwood and French rooms at the Clift Hotel. The menus vary widely, but all feature turkey.
By Paul Reidinger