Food & Drink

A taste for terrific tools

Warning: Brand names will be dropped in the telling of this story.

If you're not comfortable with that, you won't be comfortable with Karen Cooley.

The owner of the cookware shop Cooking Uptown in Elizabeth is all about the names. And if she doesn't like a product, she'll say that, too.

Cooley isn't afraid to cook and tell.

Every time we visit Cooley's shop, in a converted uniform factory at Seventh Street and Hawthorne Avenue, we find ourselves wondering: With all of this to choose from, what does she take home to use herself?

It turned out to be a big question. Cooley really has three kitchens. There's the one at the shop, where she uses local chefs to teach cooking classes.

There's the one at her home in Carmel Woods, where the cabinets and counters are stocked with Scanpan nonstick skillets, Arc 42 pots and a cobalt-blue Viking mixer.

Then there's the third kitchen, at a small weekend house in the mountains, a cabin perched high above Lake Lure, where she remade a shoebox-sized “cooking corner” into a slightly larger wrap-around kitchen.

That's the fun one, with more frivolous toys, like a Margaritaville ice shaver/mixer and a Cuisinart ice cream maker.

As a cook, Cooley says her mantra is, “Give me fire, a pot and a knife.”

“Seriously, that's all I need. But it's good to have these other things.”

Cooley is very serious, a person who gives off an air of intense focus at all times.

“I admit it – I'm a control freak, OCD, all the rest.”

Example: In her Tuscan-themed home kitchen there are four Kuhn Rikon pepper grinders, each in a color that matches the peppercorns inside – white, green, pink and black.

“To me, white pepper is to black as onion is to scallion.”

Yes, she's that serious.

That's what draws her to tools. She loves to cook, started doing it as a kid. In high school, she'd have dinner ready before her parents even got home from work.

But what she really loves are the tools. She loves good design and utility. But not cutesy – she hates things that are cute but not functional.

Her background is in corporate finance. Before opening the shop, she worked in client financial management, traveling all over North and South America to take care of staffing and facilities for multimillion-dollar companies.

“It was all the stuff you need to know to run a business – just a lot more zeroes at the end.”

She opened the shop in 2004 – the same year as the Art Institute and Johnson & Wales University. But it also opened right after Sur La Table and right before the arrival of Crate & Barrel.

To compete, she had to adapt. Carrying higher-end lines means she can't be the place you go to find a bargain. Chain stores fill that niche.

Instead, Cooley got really good at knowing her tools, and her customers.

“Most of the time, they know more than I do, about cookware and cooking. They know what they want.”

Most have moved here from other large cities that had shops like hers. And most live in Elizabeth and Plaza Midwood, so they often have small kitchens in remodeled bungalows.

They read Cook's Illustrated, not Saveur, Bon Appetit or Gourmet. And they watch the Food Network – a lot.

“They watch people I don't watch. I can only watch Alton (Brown) and Ina Garten and Michael Chiarello.”

Of course, every shop owner can be surprised by what takes off and what doesn't. Her three kitchens are repositories for discontinued cookware.

She has Gaggia coffee makers in both home kitchens. She loves them but customers didn't, so she no longer carries them.

She's “over” Santuko knives because she doesn't think the flat-edged blade is functional enough. It doesn't rock like a chef's knife.

She's wary of trends. Just because something is big doesn't mean it's important. She saw the silicone craze come and go, saw bamboo hit and not take off.

This year's big seller: citrus peelers.

“Go figure. I think because people are eating at home more.”

Some of her favorite companies:

Scanpan. She trusts the company, and the skillets are wipe and go, so they save time.

Kuhn Rikon. “Every once in a while, they have a miss, but most of the time, they have great design and great ideas.”

Rosle, maker of heavy-duty metal tools. “They are expensive, they're made in Germany. But everything they make will last forever.”

Luigi Bormioli insulated glassware. Each is molded in one continuous piece of glass so it looks like a glass suspended in a glass. They can handle hot and cold beverages, and they're only about $8 apiece.

She has started carrying a few things from Zyliss, and she likes RSVP's goofy-but-clever gadgets like onion goggles.

But she won't carry Oxo. Nothing against the company, “but you can buy it in any Target.”