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Philly Chefs Share Their Favorite Pantry Staples

Everything you should pick up on your next supply run to cook like some of the best chefs in town

rows of small turquoise bags that say kecap manis
Kecap manis is one item Diana Widjojo of Indonesian restaurant Hardena always has on hand.

With dining out at restaurants on hold and stay-at-home orders in place, there are a lot of Philadelphians out there cooking at home more than they ever have before. For people used to having their pick of expertly executed dishes across cuisines on a nightly basis, facing their own stove day after day might feel like a slog.

For ideas on how to add a little spark to a home kitchen, Eater asked several Philly chefs and bakers to share one thing they always keep on hand in their pantries. Whether you’re looking to improve your own cooking or just want to feel connected to your favorite Philly restaurants, read on.

Condiments and sauces that transform a dish:

Diana Widjojo, chef-owner, Hardena:

One thing I always have stocked up in my kitchen is kecap manis, which is an Indonesian sweet soy sauce. Actually, you can’t call yourself Indonesian if you don’t have kecap manis in the house! I make everything from fried rice, stir-fried noodles, and roasted chicken to marinades for barbecue with it. It’s really versatile and gives an amazing flavor to food. My favorite way of using it is for barbecues — the molasses in it gives a deep smoky flavor as it caramelizes on the grill.

Lou Boquila, chef-owner, Perla and Sarvida:

One house-made condiment I always have at the restaurants and at home is our chile-garlic vinegar. It’s very easy to make, lasts forever, and goes well with everything. You can dress your greens with it or put it on top of any protein and eat it with rice.

Chad Durkin, chef-owner, Porcos Porchetteria and Small Oven Pastry Shop:

I always have fish sauce, sambal oelek chile paste, and chipotle peppers in adobe sauce on the savory end, primarily due to that shit’s good in everything.

chunks of pickled eggplant in a dish
Argentinian cafe Jezabel’s sells chef-owner Jezabel Careaga’s Italian-style pickled eggplant.
Jezabel’s Cafe [official photo]

Jezabel Careaga, chef-owner, Jezabel’s Café and Bakery:

Three of my favorites at home, which you can also order from Jezabel’s online, are chimichurri, the Argentine sauce that everyone loves, escabeche de hinojo, which is pickled fennel and beets, and escabeche de berenjena, Italian-style pickled eggplant. Chimichurri is so versatile — you can add it to a piece of steak, chicken, or salmon. I also love cooking beans, like chickpeas or lima beans, and, while they’re still warm, adding a couple of spoonfuls of chimichurri. And of course if you are having empanadas, once you add chimichurri those empanadas go to another level.

Making escabeche at home and in my cafe kitchen is another one of my favorites. I do it the way my grandma, Julia, and mom, Aurelia, used to do it, so these are fresh and full of flavor. They’re a staple in my fridge, because I can easily fix appetizers or tapas with some cheese and bread when I get home after a long day of work, add some vino, and make it a meal.

The ultimate pantry staple:

Kelsey Bush, executive chef and co-owner, Bloomsday Café and Green Engine Coffee:
I always have beans. No matter what, I always have beans. They are so versatile. I can make hummus, chili, nachos, eggs and beans.... They’re so amazing and filling, and I get protein.

A go-to spice:

Ilisha Sampson, chef, Frannie Nicks:
I love paprika. It may sound crazy but I use it in almost everything. It gives chicken a nice brown coloring and a smoky flavor. I also love garlic. I use it in marinades for grilled chicken and in our meatloaf, and to sauté string beans and cabbage or in alfredo sauce. And Mrs. Dash, the classic blend — I don’t use any added salt.

The most versatile plants:

Jennifer Carroll, chef-owner, Spice Finch and Carroll Couture Cuisine:
I always have fresh ginger. It is super versatile and I eat it in some form every day — steeping it in tea, slicing it and adding to soups, stews and sauces, chopping it and covering with oil and freezing for future use. I make my own candied ginger snacks, juice it for energizing gut-healthy shots, and pickle it for a spicy pop added to pretty much anything. It’s amazing with fruit, especially mangoes, pork, veggies, braises, and a simple bowl of rice. I also dry it out and make my own ginger powder.

Peter Hwang, owner, SouthGate:
Seaweed paper is always in our pantry. Be sure to get the oiled, salted version. We either cut it up into small squares or buy it pre-cut from H Mart or Trader Joe’s and use it to make sushi rolls with fish or seafood or make kimbap, which is basically the Korean meat- and vegetable-focused version of sushi. The typical kimbap roll has omelet, cooked carrots, spinach, pickled daikon, cucumber, burdock root, and a meat like bulgogi, crabmeat, or ham. In Seoul, I love the little kimbap shops that serve twists like spicy pork, kimchi, and cheese. We also cut seaweed paper into strips to add a flourish to rice bowls or just keep it as a crispy super healthy side bite with anything Korean. You can just use the little sheets to scoop up rice and vegetable or meat as you eat. And spam musubi is delicious as well!

round loaf of bread
Michael Schulson, the restaurateur behind Philly hot spots like Double Knot, Sampan, and Via Locusta, has been baking a lot of bread at home.

For the bakers:

Michael Schulson, chef and owner, Schulson Collective:
I have a ton of flour as it’s inexpensive and multipurpose. I’ve been making fresh bread and pizza dough daily. It’s a nice way to start the day — fresh bread! It’s also a great thing to do with the kids as they love both bread and pizza.

Jen Satinsky, pastry chef and co-owner, Weckerly’s Ice Cream:
Unsalted butter. Aside from being a great fat for frying eggs and baking, it’s a crucial ingredient in many of the things I love to make at home for comfort: quiche, crackers, cookies. It also has a lot of uses as an add-in. You can make brown butter for a pasta sauce, or add it to curry or tomato sauce to richen it. Or add it to olive oil when roasting vegetables to lend a more savory flavor.

Chad Durkin, chef-owner, Porcos Porchetteria and Small Oven Pastry Shop:
I always have vanilla beans soaking in rum in a mason jar, as well as some frozen ripe bananas that I keep in the freezer, just in case I get a hankering to make some banana bread — or what we like to do in the house is use them to make the base for dairy-free ice cream.