I recently emptied my entire kitchen of all its contents in preparation for a complete renovation. In the process, I managed to fill not one but two rooms with all the gear I own.* Those piles of cookware, appliances, tools, and utensils are the result of a longstanding kitchenware shopping compulsion that would be troublesome if not for the fact that it's in the service of my job. I've shopped just about everywhere to acquire all this stuff—online, retail kitchen stores, and restaurant supply depots—and I have some thoughts on which sources are best for which things.
*Actually, that's not entirely accurate...I've got way more stuff than that. The rest is stashed in closets and cupboards throughout my apartment. But remember, I'm a collector, not a hoarder.
If there's one shopping option home cooks should take better advantage of, it's the restaurant supply store. I get it—they're huge stores, often confusingly organized, and tend to have the type of customer service you'd expect from a place that mostly deals with professionals who know exactly what they want...which is to say, very little. Despite this, I highly recommend you visit your local restaurant supply store—you're likely to find some incredible deals on workhorse equipment that can take a beating and then some.
Here are some of the items you're often better off buying at a restaurant supply store.
I always chuckle when I see those $50 mini crème brûlée propane torches sold by retail kitchenware stores. They perform like dinky little toys, boasting very little of the fuel capacity and firepower of their heavier duty counterparts. Do yourself a favor: if you want a torch in your kitchen, do what the pros do and buy a full-size one at a restaurant supply (or, frankly, a hardware store). They're easy to use, safe (as with anything, just follow the instructions), and will deliver enough flame to keep you fired up for years to come. I've seen them sold for as little as $15.
Not everyone needs a food mill at home—I only use mine a few times a year at most. But they can be incredibly useful for certain things, like mashing large batches of potatoes and quickly separating skin and seeds from the pulp when making tomato sauce from fresh tomatoes. The problem is, I have yet to find a food mill designed for the home cook that's worth a damn: they're just too small and weak to handle even the most modest of tasks. If you decide that a food mill is a worthwhile investment for the type of cooking you do, the only kind you should even consider are the ones sold to restaurants. They're larger and way more powerful, which means they'll actually be able to do the job right.
There are two things I want my primary cutting boards to be: really big and really thick. Smaller boards might work for slicing a lemon into wedges for a drink, but the cutting and chopping necessary for most recipes requires surface area, and plenty of it, lest all your handiwork go spilling off onto the countertop. Thickness, meanwhile, is important because thin boards—both wood and plastic—are more prone to warping over time. Most home kitchenware stores have a frustratingly small selection of piddly little planks that look more like clipboards than cutting boards. Where are you going to find a huge selection of sizeable cutting boards that won't break the bank? You guessed it: restaurant supply stores.
I'm as passionate about high-end knives as the next cooking nerd, but that doesn't mean every knife I own has to be hand-hammered from some rare steel. Cheap knives have their place in the kitchen too. For starters, I'm a big believer in paying as little for paring knives as possible—my favorites are inexpensive Victorinox ones, which are more than adequate for just about any paring-knife task. I also try to get less expensive serrated knives (since there's no easy way to resharpen them once they lose their bite) and task-specific knives that I use infrequently, like filleting knives for fish. It's also always useful to have a couple junky knives around to abuse without worrying about the damage you're doing to the blade. If you're looking for a good, cheap cleaver, Kenji has already talked about the virtues of the inexpensive options at a lot of Chinese restaurant supply stores. Beyond that, any restaurant supply store is a good bet for finding a large selection to meet all of your budget knife needs.
Sometimes I'm shocked by the price tags I see on mixing bowl sets, especially when you consider that the largest bowl is often several sizes smaller than what you sometimes need. At most restaurant supply stores, you'll find stainless steel bowls—the only material we generally recommend for mixing bowls—ranging from itty-bitty to vessels so large you could practically bathe in them, and everything in between. The bowls are sold individually, not as sets, giving you the freedom to pick and choose only the bowl sizes you need (and even doubling or tripling up on the most useful ones).
Food Storage Containers
Good storage containers are some of the hardest things to find for your home kitchen. I rely a little too heavily on plastic pint and quart containers, which I love for holding wet foods and for freezing liquids like stock, but they can break down and crack over time. The alternatives at most fancy kitchenware stores are either clunky glass vessels which don't nest well, or expensive plastic ones that'll bankrupt you if you actually buy as many as you need. My favorite solution for smaller storage containers are the rectangular metal ones that are sometimes sold as steam-table inserts. They come in a variety of useful depths and sizes (I find that the "sixth" and "ninth" sizes are the most handy), nest extremely well, and are sturdy enough to live through years and years of use. For larger sizes, you can stock up on plastic Cambro containers—they're great for holding dry goods like sugar and flour, for instance.
Baking Sheets and Racks
I use rimmed baking sheets for more than just baking (actually, I almost never bake, so I use them for everything except baking). Half-sheets are the most standard size in home kitchens, but I use the smaller quarter-sheets just as often—they're particularly helpful for organizing your ingredient prep without taking over your countertop or refrigerator shelves the way the bigger ones do. Restaurant supply stores sell all the sizes, including full-sheet trays (which are too big to be practical for most home cooks), and they usually have them in nice, thick, heavy-duty aluminum for cheap. Plus, you can pick up matching wire racks for each sheet tray you buy, which not only help when cooling cookies after baking, but also can be used to elevate meats above the tray when roasting, allowing for maximum air circulation.
Cheap Heavy-Bottomed Stainless Steel Cookware
Investing in quality cookware can be a very, very expensive undertaking. You want the metal of most of your stainless steel skillets and saucepans to be thick enough to minimize hot spots and efficiently conduct and retain heat. One option is buying cookware with cladding that goes up the sides, which helps prevent scorching on the walls and corners of the pan. But fully-clad pans are expensive to produce, leading to price tags that are easily one or two hundred dollars apiece. A cheaper option: pans with a thick metal disc on the bottom and thin side walls, a construction that restaurant supply stores tend to stock. For most tasks, they perform perfectly well, and the cost savings can be significant. If you're just starting to build your cookware collection, this type of pan is one of your better bets.
Carbon Steel Pans
I've written a lot about why I love carbon steel pans—they offer some of the heat retention properties of cast iron, but in a slightly lighter, thinner, more nest-able form. The problem is, they can be hard to find, especially at home-cookware stores. Thanks to carbon steel's popularity in France, and therefore French-influenced kitchens, lots of restaurants continue to use carbon steel, which means restaurant suppliers often keep them on the shelves.
For most types of pots and pans, buying the cheapest product is rarely the smartest option: that low price usually guarantees poor construction and less-than-ideal thickness of the metal. But when it comes to nonstick, the cheaper the better (well, to a point, anyway). That's because the nonstick coating is unlikely to last more than a few years, even if you're careful with it. And once the coating is compromised, the only option is to buy a new pan. That's why, just like toothbrushes and underwear, you should approach nonstick cookware with the intention of replacing it often—spend too much and you'll be reluctant to let it go, even if it's clearly well past its expiration date. Not a good thing. All you really need are two cheap nonstick aluminum skillets, a smaller 8-inch (good for individual omelets) and a larger 10- or 12-inch (good for a family-sized frittata)—just be sure not to get extremely thin-gauge aluminum since it can warp even before the coating is shot.
Stainless Spoons and Whisks
If I wanted to, I could make this article ten times longer, listing every small tool sold at restaurant supply stores: waiter's corkscrews and bottle openers, squeeze bottles, tongs, ladles, and more. The basic ones are more than adequate in many cases, and cheaper than some of the upscale alternatives you'll find at retail shops. I'll skip all that, though, since it opens up debates about things like whether locking tongs with rubber grips are preferable at home (a valid argument, by the way). I'll let you wander the aisles at your local restaurant supply to decide which little gizmos are worth grabbing and which aren't. But at the very least, consider picking up some stainless steel spoons, slotted and solid, and a whisk or two. The spoons are endlessly handy and only cost a buck or two at most, and restaurant supply stores tend to stock heavier-duty whisks, which can sometimes be nice to have (you can even roughly mash potatoes with them if you don't have a dedicated potato masher).
Roasting pans are among the most expensive of all cookware items, and they're also among the most useless. If you're not clear on why fancy roasting pans are a waste of money, you should go read Kenji's article here. And then when you're done, visit a restaurant supply store to buy what's known as a hotel pan. It's the same size and depth as a roasting pan, and works just as well in almost all instances. As for cost, is $15 cheap enough? That's the price I saw on my most recent trip to a restaurant supply store.
Anyone who has limited experience with a y-shaped vegetable peeler tends to be very skeptical when I tell them it's far superior to the stick ones most folks have at home. But I swear it's true, and with enough practice, I'm confident almost everyone will come to agree with me. After all, it's not an accident that it's the type of peeler almost every professional uses. My favorite kind is made by Kuhn Rikon and has a carbon steel blade. These peelers, though, are at their best when those blades are still sharp and fresh, which means replacing them with some frequency. I buy several at a time when I visit the restaurant supply store, which usually is enough to keep me in stock until my next visit.
I totally get the visual appeal of spendy kitchen towels—I mean, who doesn't want to pretend they live in a Kinfolk photo spread. But real cooks cook—it can be messy, and when it's messy, you don't want to soak up grease and beet juices with something that costs more than the food itself. You need kitchen towels that you can abuse without worrying about how much you'll have to pay to replace them. Once again, the restaurant supply is a great source.