Kitchen Gadgets

The `Curmudgeon of Cookware' Has the Right Tool for the Right Task

FINDING a perfect recipe is one thing. Finding the right pot to cook it in is another. Recipes may rise or fall on the size, shape, or capacity of the cookware, says Maida Heatter, an expert on baking who has written five cookbooks. ``A cake can be ruined by the wrong size pan,'' she says. ``If it's too large, the cake won't brown correctly on top and often won't rise perfectly.''

The capacity of a cake pan is as important as the pan's measurements, she found.

``I learned that from Fred Bridge in his New York cookware shop,'' says this Florida-based food writer and restaurateur. A loaf pan may measure 9 by 5 by 3 inches, she says, ``but the only way to find the actual capacity is to fill it with water until overflowing - then measure the water.''

Bridge Kitchenware is located at 214 East 52nd Street in New York City. Pots and pans are piled high on the counters, dangle from the rafters, cover the walls. Shiny, state-of-the-art stockpots and saut'e pans are stacked alongside ancient copper paella pans (a Spanish dish of seafood, chicken, and rice) and casseroles. There are coucousieres (for cooking couscous, a North African, rice-sized pasta), solid-copper zabiglione bowls (for making an Italian dessert of beaten egg yolks, sugar, and wine), croq uembouche molds (for shaping caramel-dipped cream-puff balls into a pyramid), chopping boards, and knives of all descriptions.

Stellar chefs, food magazine stylists, journalists, and cookbook writers come to this spectacular shop for the best in special equipment and often for advice.

Mr. Bridge believes in the perfect tool for every task. He offers customers everything that a professional or amateur cook might need - from 64-cent cookie cutters to $600 duck presses - and more.

Flo Braker, a cooking teacher and cookbook author from California, says, ``When I go into Fred Bridge's, I'm like a kid in a candy store. I go crazy. Such wonderful things to cook with!''

``This shop is my hobby as well as my business,'' Bridge says. ``Over the last six decades, I've made many good and fast friends in the food and cookware world; many are in the restaurant business,'' he explains. His family enjoys talking ``shop'': His wife, Carolyn, is a home economist, and both his sons, Steven and Christopher, are involved with food. Bridge got into the business after serving as a cook in World War II.

``My retail customers began to increase around 1955 when home cooks started to do more sophisticated cooking. They wanted the same heavy-duty saucepans and saut'e pans, top-of-the-line knives and spatulas designed especially for chefs. But things really expanded when New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne `discovered' my shop and wrote about it.

``And when Julia Child told her television audience that it was a must to use a copper bowl for properly whipped egg whites - we really sold a lot of copper bowls after that,'' he says.

A list of Bridge customers would read like a Who's Who of cooking personalities. Jeff Smith (the Frugal Gourmet), Giuliano Bugialli, Madeleine Kamman, Lydia Shire, Andr'e Soltner of Lut`ece, and Seppi Renggli of the Four Seasons, to name a few.

Over the years, Mr. Bridge has become a personality himself. His brusque manner has given him a reputation for making customers cringe when they ask questions he thinks are a waste of his time.

``A lot of people think he's the great curmudgeon of kitchenware,'' says Craig Claiborne. ``He's not. He sometimes gives that impression, but underneath he's a sentimental, warm human being. And more important is that he's the finest purveyor of cookware in America.''

Bridge concedes that he is often curt and abrupt. ``We have a small staff and if I shout for assistance, it's because of expediency,'' he says. ``I'm a direct, straightforward person, especially when I'm dealing with problems or business matters. Those who know me well appreciate that this is my style,'' he explains.

``Fred Bridge is really a softie. His brusqueness is only a front - otherwise, he'd be giving half his stock away,'' says Ms. Braker.

TODAY, Bridge has about 20 different sizes of muffin tins - from enormous ones that hold a cup of batter, to tiny ones for miniature muffins, Ms. Braker says.

``Certainly Fred Bridge has the premi`ere equipment store on the East Coast,'' says Wolfgang Puck, the quintessential California chef. ``It's probably worth it to put up with his personality just to get the perfect Teflon mold or copper saut'e pan or mandoline.''

``He is arrogant sometimes,'' says Mr. Claiborne, ``but it could be the wisdom of his nearly 60 years' experience in the trade. Fred Bridge knows a great deal about food preparation.... I trust his judgment implicitly.''

Maida Heatter also trusts him. She tells of a ``terrific'' recipe she adapted from an old cookbook that she couldn't make because she couldn't find the right pan. ``Finally, I took my problem to Fred Bridge. He understood just what was needed and had it made perfectly,'' she says.

The recipe, for Marbelized Spice Cake, called for a very large (14-cup) tube pan. The recipe is reprinted in a new book, ``The Well-Tooled Kitchen,'' by Fred Bridge and Jean F. Tibbetts (New York: William Morrow, $24.95).

Bridge displays his expertise in this encyclopedic guide to the mysteries of some complicated cookware. Five hundred different items are described with 250 photographs, along with historical notes on the evolution of many kitchen items.

Co-author Jean Tibbetts collected 100 special recipes from top New York chefs, some known for certain intricate dishes, or specialties such as the best stuffed veal recipe of Giuliano Bugialli; Saut'eed Duck Breasts with Spices and Pur'eed Potatoes with Sesame Seeds from Jean-Michel Bergougnoux, executive chef at Le Cygne; the famous chicken hash of New York's ``21'' restaurant, and Claiborne's recipe for Smothered Chicken.

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