1. Sharp knives
This is something that all chefs need. The time you save and the precision you gain with a good sharp knife can blow your mind! There are so many quality brands out there and every chef seems to have their own personal favorites. A few brands I would recommend are Shun, Global, Henckles, Wusthof, and Misono. But really there are so many wonderful varieties out there. Mostly go and find what feels best in your hand. I like a handle with some grip to it because when cutting things like chicken, steak, or butter a slick handle can become, well, slick, and when wielding a sharp blade this can be a dangerous thing. A knife with a rounded blade is also good because this allows for a rocking motion which helps to cut things quickly and evenly. It's also nice to have at least one large and one small knife with an unlined back edge for fine dicing. (Example shown below).
Since my life these days is filled with so much zesting I have found a new appreciation for this incredible tool. We don't have one in the patisserie and so when I have to zest 26 lemons I have to do it with the prickly, zesting side of a four sided grater. This had resulted in a permanent chunk missing from my right thumb knuckle. Every time it heals, I knick it again. Not only are these dangerous, they're very inefficient as well. It's takes a long time to zest something with a four sided grater, is uncomfortable, does not take off all the zest, and most of the zest is left stuck in the tongs of the zester. For these reasons I believe that everyone should have a microplane in their kitchen. They are fast and easy and efficient. They are small and easy to store and clean. They have multiple styles and uses. You can use them for fine grating, for long julienne peeling, or, of course, zesting. Great for a gift or stocking stuffer, this is a must have in my opinion.
A mandolin is another multi-functional and efficient tool. Good for thin even slicing these things are nasty sharp and will take off a few layers of your finger if you aren't careful. They have multiple interchangeable blades allowing for slicing, waffling and pretty much anything else you're mind can imagine.
Silpats are magical. Nonstick amazingness is what they are all about. The French have been using them for quite sometime now and they are becoming very popular in the states, too. While parchment may be cheaper it's not reusable and not as non-stick as these incredible silicon mats. You can find them in most kitchen stores and even in Bed, Bath & Beyond. Everyone should have at least two in their kitchen. Great for cookies, candies, brittle, caramel, any of those baked items that often result in a sticky state of frustration. For a storage tip you can roll them up in old paper towel rolls.
5. Cast Iron Pot and Pan
Cast Iron is another incredible invention. These things are almost as old as cooking itself. Heavy and solid, these cook very evenly and beautifully. These require seasoning and should not be washed with soap or left soaking in water. But really, the years and years of grease and food bits left on them add that extra special flavor you just won't get from a shiny new pot! These can be expensive but is something that's great to find at a flea market or second hand store. The older, funkier, and more heavily used the better!
6. Le Creuset Dutch Oven
Those these are expensive they are worth every penny. Cast iron interiors with a ceramic coating, these are some of the best cookware items money can buy. Since an entire set isn't financially feasible for most people, I recommend that everyone have the dutch oven at least. Great for large, one pot dishes like stews, chowders, gratins, slow cooked meats and so on, these do a great job of evenly cooking anything. And with the wide range of beautiful colors, they're fun and pretty too!
9. Corkscrew and Bottle of Wine
Whenever I have spent an entire day in the kitchen, one of my best friends is a nice bottle of wine. Since I am most likely snacking on everything I'm making, its nice to have a cold glass of white wine to accompany all the nibbling. It also helps to lift my spirits if anything goes awry. Plus I find I often end up putting a splash of wine to enhance the flavors of my mushrooms, chicken, pasta sauce, or whatever else I've been sweating over all day.
In my opinion you can't cook anything without some salt in it. Even sweet dishes need it, crave it, have to have it! It brings out the flavor in everything. Since I'm not notorious for getting things done when I need to, I often realize too late that I have nothing in my kitchen to cook. But as long as I have salt I can throw whatever else I have together and see what happens. But no salt? I'll run to the 7-Eleven or other closest 24-hour establishment to pick some of it up.
11. Rolling Pin
A rolling pin is something you just have to have in order to complete a certain job. Sure you can try to McGyver one out of a bottle of wine, a pvc pipe, or whatever else you have lying around, but the truth is it's worth it to have the real deal. I prefer the straight, handle-less versions but, again, it's a personal decision. I find this type, though, to be the easiest to store, the most versatile, and the most accurate. You need them for making tarts, pies, cookies, brittles, ravioli, croissants, brioche...the list goes on and on. Plus they make a kick-ass weapon if necessary.
12. Offset and Even Spatulas
This is something that a lot of people are lacking in their kitchens but they really are handy little devils. If you plan on frosting anything you should have at least one of these. Again whether you go for the even style or the offset is mostly based on personal preference. But there really are certain jobs that favor one over the other.
Perhaps this should've gone below the "sharp knives" category, but band-aids are something everyone should have in or close to their kitchen. Mistakes happen, especially when you mix sharp knives with slippery butter and a glass of wine. And when you almost slice off your pinky finger you don't want to be reduced to strapping it back on with a piece of duct tape. So have a nice range of quality Band-aids at the ready, for your own sake.
14. Food Processor
If you have ever been in a situation where you needed a food processor and didn't have one, you understand how hand these things can be. I remember once in college when I came home to my roommate's failed attempt at potato soup. Since we didn't have a food processor she had instead crammed our crappy blender full with cooked potatoes. At the time of my arrival the kitchen had been left in tatters and she had thrown in the white towel, left the place a mess, and was downstairs drinking beer and watching TV to recuperate from the exhausting and frustrating episode that occurred in the kitchen. I took it upon myself to finish the job and was forced to blend the potatoes one at a time in our sad little blender. Now, if we had a food processor the job would've been finished quickly and cleanly without a drop of sweat from my poor roommate. Food processors are handy for pulverizing, creaming, slicing, shredding, grating, crushing, any key "ing" things you're going to do in the kitchen. They're even great for making doughs. So do yourself a favor and add one to your kitchen collection before a "potato soup" incident happens to you.
Cooking is just that, cooking. It isn't brain surgery. You aren't going to kill someone (well unless you really mess up). So when you're in the kitchen you need to not be afraid you're going to screw up. So many of my friends refuse to cook for themselves because they say they don't know what to do. Well, you have to try stuff out, experiment, and not be afraid that it's not going to turn out. What's the worst that's going to happen? It won't taste good? Oh, heaven forbid! I completely understand the pressure to make something incredible and I am probably harder on myself in the kitchen than anyone else. But the kitchen is where art meets necessity and in order to be triumphant you can't be afraid of something going wrong. Not everything you make will be Michelin star ready but all the moments of mess ups are worth the few moments of delicious genius you have. And no matter how good or not-so-good a dish turns out, I find very few things as rewarding as I find cooking for myself. You're feeding people, and that is a noble thing to do.