The Kitchen Tools Chef Rick Martinez Can’t Live Without
The newly minted OXO Chef in Residence reveals his go-to kitchen tools, and what to look for when investing in quality cooking gear.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Chef Rick Martinez made a decision to stay in Mexico. He had the choice to go back to New York, but he chose to stay put to continue working on his upcoming book and cook the food he wanted to cook, which is—spoiler alert—Mexican food. He had been traveling around the country even before that, visiting mercados, meeting new people, and enjoying and celebrating the richness of the culture. However, when quarantine commenced and he settled down in his home in the city of Mazatlán, he realized that he needed his kitchen tools to work. As a former Senior Food Editor at Bon Appétit, he knew that in order to build a kitchen from scratch, he was going to need the tried and true tools he’s been using for years.
In the process of gearing up his kitchen, OXO reached out to him to be part of its brand new Chefs in Residence program, a collaborative series where he could continue to highlight the richness of Mexico through his recipes. As a big fan of the brand already, he accepted the opportunity to share his take on Mexican food and spread the word about his all-time favorite OXO tools. We spoke with Martinez about what this new partnership means to him, his tips on how to find good quality tools, and his forthcoming cookbook, Mi Cocina.
Thrillist: What are your first memories of food? Do you remember the first recipes that you cooked and how you felt in that process?
Rick Martinez: My mom used to pick me up from daycare––I was probably like three years old. We'd get into the house and I would go to the kitchen, get a chair, and push it up to the stove. I was her little helper, and I would just stand there and wait for her to tell me what to do. I would stir pots and she would tell me what she was doing and that's really how I learned. I don't actually even remember why I was so into it. I just knew that I loved being a part of that. The smells, and the food, and watching the bubbles in the pots when things were boiling. My mom was an amazing cook and she really taught me a lot about food, the food that we grew up with, the food of our family and to some extent, the food of Mexico.
My whole family was born in Texas. My grandparents were born in Northern Mexico, but they came to the US and settled in Texas when they were very, very young. Our food was very Tex-Mex. Other people told us, "Oh. Well, you're Mexican, therefore you eat Mexican food, you cook Mexican food." So I grew up thinking, well, this is what Mexicans eat. I remember the first time I traveled to Mexico, I was like, "Oh my God. This is nothing like what we eat." I called my mom and I was like, “Where does our food come from? I don't understand why our food is so different." So it was a big eye-opening experience for me.
How would you describe your job and what detail do you wish people knew about it?
Martinez: I think for me, the biggest change [since I worked at Bon Appétit] is that I don't have to change my food for other people. Not just at Bon Appétit, but a lot of companies would approach me for a recipe like, "We want you to make an enchilada dish, but we want it to be for weeknight. So it needs to be 30 minutes or less. It needs to be 10 ingredients or less. It needs to be healthy. It needs to be all of these things." Frankly, before George Floyd, and before BLM, and before everything that happened in 2020, I think people of color felt like they needed to do that in order to get published, in order to make videos. It might not be true to me, to the country of origin, the culture, or the cuisine but, if I wanted that job, money, and byline, I had to say yes. Now, I cook the food that I want to eat and it's always my food. This is who I am and it's such a liberating experience. Thankfully, I feel like there are a lot of people that like me and like this food, but I don't have to ask permission anymore. I feel a lot more true to myself and also true to the country.
Tell us about your partnership with OXO? What is your role and what things are you most excited about bringing to the table, literally and metaphorically?
Martinez: It's funny because whenever I work with brands, my first filter is, do I actually like this company? Do I like this brand? During the pandemic I had the choice of going back to New York in March of last year or staying [in Mexico]. I thought, “If I'm going to get stuck somewhere, I'd rather be stuck on a beach and I can write my book and cook my food. I would just rather be here.” So I did. I obviously didn't bring any cookware or anything to cook. The first thing I did was have to build out all the equipment I needed to cook. [OXO is one] of the brands that I've always really liked. I had a ton of [their products] in my New York apartment and in all the professional kitchens I've worked in. I needed these tools to work. I feel like their tools are made for cooks. When they approached me about being one of their brand ambassadors, I was like, "Well, yes, because I [use] that all the time." I tell people what my favorite tools are and it's invariably one of their products. It was a very natural fit. I have a ton of their stuff in my house already, even before the partnership.
They're a partner that just wants me to be me. It's nice to work with a brand that is just like, "You be you. That's what we want." I'm excited to share my tips in the kitchen, which include a lot of their tools. But also, just sharing more about my food, my country's food.
What is the knife you reach for on a daily basis? And what characteristics does a good set of knives have to have?
Martinez: Knives are very personal. I've worked in restaurants before and your hand literally hurts because you've been holding it for a long time, especially starting out. So you need a knife that is comfortable for you because everybody's hand is different and holds it slightly differently. To me, the most important thing is balance. If you put your finger right [in between the handle and the blade] and it’s balanced, that works well for me. Also, you need something that's super sharp, that’s going to hold its edge.
I [recommend] a good chef's knife and a paring knife. I will spend a lot of money on a very good chef's knife. Shun tends to be my favorite chef's knife but, with paring knives, I actually like the really cheap ones. You go through paring knives so quickly, they're almost like disposable razors. You use them a lot and then they get dull. You can sharpen it, but after a while, it just loses its edge and you just get another one.
Shop Rick's Must-Have Kitchen Tools
Shop Rick's Must-Have Kitchen Tools
What types of utensils do you think every kitchen should have?
Martinez: I think OXO makes some of the best tongs in the industry. It would annoy me so badly when other tongs don't lock, or they stay open, or they stay locked where they're weirdly in the middle. When the OXO tongs are locked, they're locked. When they're not, they're open. They have a good spring back and they also have silicone coating on it so they're easy to handle. That's one of the tools that I use a lot. I feel like you're always flipping things. I'll use my tongs to just move things either in and out of the oven or on and off the stove, as opposed to grabbing it with my hand and a pot holder or a towel.
OXO’s measuring cups and measuring spoons have magnets. I don't like the ones that clip. Because if I only need a teaspoon, I don't want other spoons dangling down and, if they're separated, they tend to get lost . So with the magnets, they stay all together. Same thing with their dry measuring cups. The liquid measuring cups are also really easy to use. They have the sloped sides and they have the measurements on the sides. I really like those a lot.
They also have really good plastic cutting boards. I use wood for pretty much everything except for meats and fish, [that’s when] I use the plastic boards. The thing that I like about their plastic boards is they have little rubber feet so the board doesn't move around and they're dishwasher safe. Whenever I use them for meat or fish or poultry, I always bleach them afterwards just to make sure that they're completely clean. They're totally resistant to bleach and the dishwasher, so they're a really great product. They come in all different sizes.
If you had access to two pans for the rest of your life, which ones would they be?
Martinez: Wow, that's so hard! This is funny because this changed when I got here. When I was in New York, I would have said a large stainless steel skillet, which I love, especially Cuisinart skillets, I think they're amazing. When I got [to Mexico] and started cooking, I didn't have access to Cuisinart. So I thought what I will have access to are cast iron skillets, because I couldn't find a brand of stainless steel skillet here that I really liked. I had cast iron in New York but I used it for special occasions. I had forgotten how much I love them. They hold their heat really well and they evenly distribute it. One of the tests I used to do for pans to see how well they distribute heat, is you put it on a burner, pour water in it, and then you can see where the heat is hitting the pan. In a cheap skillet, you basically see a ring of bubbles where the flames are touching the bottom of the pan. So you know that anything that's where those bubbles are is going to burn, and then an inch away from the bubbles, it's going to be cold so it's not going to cook that quickly. If you do the same thing with cast iron, you'll see more bubbles all over.
My second choice would be an enameled cast iron dutch oven. I feel like those are probably the two pans that I use most often. So I'm either making a soup, a stew, braising something, or baking something in the dutch oven. When I'm sauteing vegetables, searing a piece of meat, or making a skillet sauce [I use] my cast iron.
Shop Rick's Kitchen Go-To's
Shop Rick's Kitchen Go-To's
You're basically an apron style icon. Can you share your favorite brands and styles?
Martinez: One of my favorite brands it's a Mexican brand. Funny enough, it's just called Mexican Aprons. The things that I love about their aprons are that they're made very well. The material is waxed canvas so it's thick. The reason why I like thick aprons is because I think they just look better on camera. They hide any extra pounds that you might be gaining *laughs*. More seriously, if you splash something or if you're carrying a pot and it splashes up at you, [with a thin apron] it's going to soak through. If it's hot, you're going to burn yourself. It's going to be a more serious burn because you've got layers of hot material on top of you. If you have something like a thick canvas, whatever hits you is just going to bounce off and you're going to be protected. They also have really beautiful leather straps, brass, and chrome hardware that I really like.
I wear aprons all the time. I love fashion. I love beautiful shirts. When I started cooking professionally, I was like, 'Why are aprons so boring? I don't want to wear something that's boring." [Mexican Aprons] can engrave your name on the hardware and they have beautiful designs. So I have calaveras, pink flamingos, and lots of very Mexican, tropical things. That's what I look for in an apron.
Can you walk us through what a typical kitchen at a Mexican house looks like? What tools and appliances can we find no matter what?
Martinez: In a Mexican kitchen, you will find a blender. I think it's funny because out of everything that I have in my kitchen, probably the most essential tool apart from the knives would be a blender. In Mexican cuisine, there's a lot of grinding. You're using a lot of chilies. Sometimes they're fresh, sometimes they're roasted or charred, sometimes they're dried and you're using a lot of spices. A lot of times those spices are whole, so canela, cominos, coriander seeds, clavos, and you need something to grind them. Years ago and also in some places now, they have a molcajete or metate where you can grind all of these spices up. Now people mainly just use their blender, it's now an essential part of Mexican cuisine. I think you're probably going to find some cosas de barro. So either plates made out of red clay or jarros, which are the pitchers. Whenever you go to the mercados, you'll see that the red barro plates are very common. I would've said probably a tortilla press, but I actually don't think a lot of people make tortillas in their houses. I have tortilla presses, but it's so easy to buy tortillas here. There's literally a tortilleria on every corner. So you can just go in the morning, buy your kilo or half kilo of tortillas, and that'll get you through the day.
What can we expect from your new cookbook Mi Cocina?
Martinez: I felt like I had a decent knowledge of Mexican food before I started writing it, but I knew that the country was very big and the food was very different in different parts of it. So what I really wanted to do, for my own sake, is understand what the regional differences were. I was completely amazed because every place just had completely different food. Part of it is geography, part of it is climate, there's different microclimates.The food is incredibly varied. This book is a regional look at Mexican food. I've traveled to all 32 states, I've visited more than 156 cities. Every recipe in this book is one of the best things that I've eaten in that place, but my version of it. It's basically a travel guide, a lot of regional cooking.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.