Pro Knifer

I love food. As an obsessed foodie, I believe that cooking is a lot like making love. Like most lovers, I have a special place where my food fantasies seem closer to reality. Welcome to the secret world of restaurant supply.

I remember my first visit to a restaurant supply. You always remember your first time. The store had a wrong-side-of-the-tracks look. At first I thought it wasn't open to the public. I imagined that it was filled with Land of the Giants-size kitchen equipment.

I wasn't far off the mark. There were a lot of caldron-size pots obviously designed for mass quantities of food. But, like Goldilocks, I made myself at home and soon found all sorts of things that were just the right size.

The equipment stocked by a restaurant supply is made for professional use. It's durable. Most of the pots and pans are made of aluminum, one of the best heat conductors. Unlike bargain-basement aluminum cookware, these pots are heavy enough to stand up to the abuses of a restaurant kitchen. Quart for quart and dollar for dollar, they earn their keep. Although I won't give up my fancy cookware, I cook a lot of food in my restaurant supply pots and pans.

These stores are good for more than pots and pans. Looking for a gift for someone who loves to cook? See what professional cooks are buying. If you'll be cooking for your extended family this holiday season and need to beef up your supply of cookware, check out what's for sale at a restaurant supply.

Over the years, I've bought all sorts of miscellany at restaurant supply stores: cutting boards, colanders and strainers, cake pans, whisks, cake-decorating equipment, measuring cups, knives, pizza cutters, ice cream scoops. I felt like I got a bargain with every purchase. Most restaurant supply stores carry blenders, mixers and salad bowls in a variety of sizes. Some sell dish towels, aprons, liquid hand soap, even cleaning supplies.

There are several restaurant supply stores within an easy drive of each other near downtown Phoenix. This makes comparison-shopping easy. It also makes it easy for first-timers to check out a few stores in just an hour or two.

Before you buy, ask whether the marked prices are the actual sales prices. Many stores mark their merchandise with retail prices even though the sales price is 10 to 40 percent lower.

Look for a bargain table or shelf. Restaurants buy in large quantities. Bowls and plates are often discounted because there aren't enough in stock to supply a restaurant. But you might find enough to make a service for eight or 12. This is also a great place to find large serving bowls, pitchers and trays.

I entertained myself for about three hours by visiting four restaurant supply stores. Did I buy anything? Of course. I bought a couple of non-stick frying pans with heat-resistant handles, and a pizza peel (a peel is the flat, wide wooden tool used to slide pizza or bread in and out of an oven). I bought a one-quart metal measuring cup. (On Star Trek, Klingons drink blood wine from the metal measuring cups used in professional kitchens.)

On my shopping spree, I started at Andrews Restaurant Supply, 2425 East Washington. Andrews is well-stocked with both new and used equipment. The used stuff is in a separate back room. Everything is neatly stacked on shelves, and prices are clearly marked. This is a store where the actual price is 30 to 40 percent less than the marked price.

Andrews has a nice selection of normal kitchen-size pots and pans. Inexpensive wooden salad bowls come in several sizes. The staff is friendly.

Eastside Restaurant Equipment, 2507 East McDowell, was the smallest of the stores I visited. For the home cook, its selection was limited. A lot of stuff is used. I spotted a used springform pan for a dollar, and some pretty cheap cutting boards. There were also some cheap glasses. The marked prices are the real prices here.

Standard Restaurant Equipment Company, 2922 East McDowell, is huge. Its showroom seems to have more items than all of the other stores combined. Everyone gets 10 percent off the marked price at Standard. The discount is greater if you register with the store.

One section of Standard is devoted to glassware and dishes. Another area has a nice selection of knives and other hand-held tools. Knife prices start at very reasonable and go up. The one thing most chefs are willing to pay top dollar for is a good knife.

Standard has whisks ranging from the kind you can use at home to three-foot monsters that look like some sort of medieval weapon. If you are stocking a home kitchen from scratch, this is the place to start.

A few blocks east, at 3311 East McDowell, you'll find National Restaurant Supply Company, another well-stocked store. Its prices are the price you pay, unless you buy in quantity. Still, experience says that it never hurts to ask for the "best price."

The bargain shelf is next to the front door at National. There were several stacks of really nice white porcelain bowls -- perfect for pasta or dinner-size salads. I asked how much they were. "Depends, how many do you want?" That answer says a lot. I didn't buy any of the bowls, but I gave them a parting glance.

The salesman at National gave me a bit of advice for the home cook. When it comes to glassware, you will need to buy quantity. The glasses are priced by the dozen, but sold by the case. That means the minimum purchase might be three or four dozen. If you want glasses, consider buying and splitting a case with some friends.

Restaurant supply stores are a lot like jeans. The only way to find a pair you like is to try them on.

Cooking is 90 percent inspiration, and good equipment at bargain prices is pretty inspirational. When I browse the aisles of a restaurant supply store, I hear a voice. It reminds me of the voice in those late-night infomercials, the one that says: "At these prices, you can't go wrong."

Andy Broder writes about food, develops recipes and teaches cooking classes in the Valley.

Contact Andy Broder at his online address: [email protected]

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Andy Broder