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The Hotel Pan That Changed My Life

Why this humble piece of kitchen equipment is the item most worth saving in a fire.

In Chicago in the early 1980s there was a sudden wave of fine dining French restaurants that kept popping up in the suburbs. It was an early form of destination dining: these were pantheons to classical French cuisine and technique, impeccably appointed, and enough to instill acute Francophilia.

One of these, inarguably my favorite, was Le Vichyssois. It's where we celebrated birthdays and anniversaries, where we took visitors and indulged in "just because" evenings of spectacular food and wine. I don't eat pâté, but I always hoped someone at the table would order it so I could indulge unabashedly in the large crock of cornichons that would accompany it to the table with a pair of olive wood tongs.

We all have those heart-and-soul restaurants, the places that invoke a feeling of home the moment we walk through the door. The beloved staples we look forward to every visit, like the perfect onion tartlet or roasted duckling that still haunt my dreams, and the inspired specials that keep things always new and fresh. Le Vichyssois was that place for me, and when it closed in 2014, having fed me and mine so gloriously for decades, it broke my heart more than a little.

About a year later, at a meeting of women leaders in the hospitality industry, I struck up a conversation with an elegant woman beside me named Priscilla. I asked her connection to the group, and she replied that she and her husband had recently closed their restaurant and retired. Their restaurant? Le Vichyssois. Emotionally, and likely a little overwhelmingly, I barraged her with my memories, my love, my gratitude, and she received it all with kindness. We became friends, and then coupled up with her husband, Chef Bernard Cretier, and my husband, and the four of us always deeply enjoyed spending time together. They gifted us a piece of custom art that they had commissioned for the restaurant, which now graces our dining room and is one of our most cherished pieces. Bernard passed unexpectedly in 2021, sending us all reeling.

Recently, after a girl's night out that included Priscilla, she asked if I had time to stop by the house. There were some things that had been Bernard's, had been from the restaurant, she thought I might like a memento or two. I left with a few items that brought back great memories or simply had good vibes. Silver dishes that had held bread service, the battered four-quart Hobart mixer that had been the only stand mixer the Vichyssois kitchen ever had, and a few pieces that had known Bernard's hand: his bench scraper, a tiny Parisian melon baller for consommé garnishes, his oyster knife for my husband, who is our resident shucker. Most importantly, I brought home a hotel pan.

For those who don't know, hotel pans are those rectangular stainless-steel pans you see in commercial kitchens. They have wide flanged tops designed to rest inside coolers or water baths or steamers, and insets where lids can rest. They are both ubiquitous and invaluable. The hotel pan I received is an 11 quart, which is about 6" deep, and roughly 10" x 12". The flange is bent at one corner, the base is no longer truly flat, it has several dents in it, and the surface inside and out has the texture of a dull nickel from decades of use and cleaning. Bernard was not one to chase after new tools or the latest gadget—if there was life in something yet, it got used until it was spent. Priscilla is pretty sure the pan had been part of the first purchase order for kitchen equipment, and as such, had likely been in service every single day the restaurant was open. I promised to keep it in similar use.

And it has changed my life.

One of the most versatile things you can have in your kitchen, whether you cook passionately or perfunctorily, is a handy, sturdy, vessel. One that is dishwasher, fridge and freezer safe, generously sized but not gargantuan. Bernard's hotel pan sits proudly for its daily use either on the prep island or off to the side on the counter. If I am cooking, it receives scraps that I am saving for future stock making, or bits and pieces that are destined for the garbage or the food grounds Mill that munches up my food waste. If I need to grab a bunch of ingredients at once out of the fridge, I take the hotel pan and use it to wrangle everything, so I don't have to make multiple trips. If I have meat I need to defrost quickly, I fill the pan with cold water and my package of frozen food and let a trickle of water create convection for fast thawing. If I need to create an ice bath, the hotel pan is the perfect size. I have filled it with rice pilaf and popped it in the oven to keep warm before a dinner party, and when the weather warms, I will use it to create blocks of ice to keep beverages cool in their dispensers on hot summer days. During the holiday season I used it at various events to collect dirty silverware, or as a place to scrape plates before stacking.

At the end of every day, I pop it in the dishwasher, and in the morning, it is ready for another day of service. And every time I reach for it, or spot it on the counter, dull and dented but unflaggingly faithful, I think of Bernard and Priscilla and their incomparable Le Vichyssois, and my heart smiles.

A 10-11 quart stainless hotel pan will run you about $30-$40. It might also just fundamentally improve your daily kitchen practice for the rest of your life.