I was recently wandering around Summit Mall and found myself outside one of my favorite old haunts, Williams-Sonoma. I fondly remember spending hours and hours of my time looking through every nook of the store and spending even more time pouring over the catalogs, envisioning a kitchen that had all of the wonderful cookware, gadgets, and electronics that this high-end boutique store could offer. I became even more excited when a good friend of mine got a job as a salesperson. Not only could I have my cake, but I got a discount on it, too. I made up my wishlist and like the good Santa Claus she was, she filled my culinary stocking with lots of goodies. I'd like to think it was because I was an especially good boy that year, but the reality was I simply paid her to do it.
From the first moment I walked into Williams-Sonoma, I've known that these high-end products don't come cheap. And I'm okay with that. If there was one thing I could come to expect from the products sold at this store chain, it was quality products. If I ever had any problems with an item, I returned/exchanged them with no problems and no arguments from anyone. In fact, the only real problem I ever had was with a Kitchen Aid Pro 600 stand mixer, which I got on sale for $299 because they were phasing out the color schemes associated with spring. Apparently there was something wrong with the gear mechanism and as I started using the mixer for heavy duty bread kneading, small metal shavings began raining down into my dough. Definitely not a good thing. I packed it back up, took it back to the store from which I purchased it, and they replaced it. No muss. No fuss.
Over the years as I have become a more experienced cook, I found myself buying less and less when I stopped in for a visit. It wasn't that there wasn't some cool new gadget to obsess over, it was just that I had all the basics in my kitchen now: knives, pots, pans, essential tools. For a while I was even buying some of their jarred sauces, especially the spicy peanut Asian sauce that I used quite a bit with udon noodles. But even that stopped when I decided to teach myself how to make it from scratch. I had gone from Love to Mild Indifference over the course of a decade.
That all changed yesterday. As I walked through the front door of the store, I was curiously drawn over to the pots and pans section of the space. I spotted this:
This, gentle reader, was the All-Clad Ultimate Chicken Roaster. It is essentially a roasting pan with a long curved neck that suspends the chicken above the pan. And what fabulous price was being charged for this ultimate chicken roaster pan? Well, the suggested retail was $250, but the good folks at Williams-Sonoma had decided to give the chicken roasting public a break and were only asking $179.99!
Something snapped inside my head. I felt like I had eaten the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden and I suddenly knew of my culinary nakedness.
Don't get me wrong. I don't have a problem spending a nice chunk of change to buy a really nice roasting pan. I have made many a roasted chicken, pork loin roast, and roasted root vegetable medley to prove that. What drove me to sudden fits of insanity was that here was a well-respected company, All-Clad, offering a culinary uni-tasker for $180 (or worse yet, $250 if you went with the suggested price)? I began to realize that a younger, more inexperienced version of myself would've been all over it. It was exactly the kind of superfluous piece of hardware that I would have asked for as a Christmas or birthday gift.
I began to stumble around the store, looking for other bits of overpriced insanity. First up, I discovered the All-Clad Timer/Clock. A hefty little gadget, it was priced at $39.95. I can hear your question now, gentle reader and no, there wasn't a probe thermometer involved, it was just a TIMER. For $40. Seriously? Up next, a pair of kitchen tongs for $28.50. Don't people know that they can get kitchen tongs at any good restaurant supply store for much, much less? My favorite overpriced tool, however, had to be the vegetable and garlic choppers. Priced at $29.95 and $18.00 respectively, the thought that people either have so little time or so little skill with a knife that they need to spend nearly $50 on these two gadgets made me quite sad and mad at the same time.
Ultimately, Williams-Sonoma (and its other high-end boutique brethren) is a business and is looking to sell what it thinks its customers want. I guess it just wasn't until today that I realized that their business model had evolved to embrace the same "dumbing down" that has happened on Food Network since its inception in the mid 1990's. People either don't want to or don't have time to learn proper knife skills or how to roast a chicken regardless of whether you have the Ultimate Chicken Roaster or just a plain old aluminum foil pan you bought at the grocery store.
I guess what saddened me the most was that trips to Williams-Sonoma used to inspire me to be a better cook and learn new things, be it ingredients or techniques. I firmly believe that higher quality kitchen products do help you to turn out better and more consistent food. Unfortunately, the only thing I saw during my trip yesterday were gadgets that didn't help to further knife skills and overpriced uni-taskers that have no place in the home of a serious cook.
I could say that it's not you, Williams-Sonoma, it's me. But that wouldn't be true. It is you. I think the love affair may finally be over; it's time to break up and move on.