The One Ingredient the World’s Top Chefs Can’t Do Without

Using the right ingredient makes all the difference to make a dish great. Here's what the top chefs choose to set their food apart.

The world’s leading chefs have their pick of produce: fresh herbs and aromatic spices, seasonal fruit and vegetables, luxury seafood and the finest meats. But if they had to pick one favorite ingredient for their cooking, what would it be? We asked dozens around the world for their favorites, and here’s what they had to say.

Photographer: Topic Images Inc./Getty Images/Topic Images

April Bloomfield (The Spotted Pig, New York): Anchovies. “In cooking, it helps to pull out and layer flavors in a way that makes a dish moreish. You get an abundance of umami.”

Elena Arzak (Arzak, San Sebastian, Spain): Parsley. “I need it like I need air to breathe. I use it in almost all the plates. It is a very Basque ingredient, part of our identity.”

Lansu Chen (Le Moût , Taichung, Taiwan): Fermented bean curd paste. “It is savory, sweet and spicy, powerfully fused with the aged fragrance.”

Clare Smyth (Gordon Ramsay, London): Vinegar. “I put vinegar of some description on pretty much everything. Getting the balance of acidity right transforms dishes.”

Margot Janse (Le Quartier Français, Franschhoek, South Africa): African sour fig. “The seeds are encased in a salty and sour gel. For me, it’s the umami of South Africa.”

Ruth Rogers (River Cafe, London): Lemons. “They’re lovely at this time of year. You can squeeze them on fish or make a sorbet. I just made a peach Bellini with them.”

Emma Bengtsson (Aquavit, New York): Cucumbers. “I have a dish on the menu that is five different kinds. You can do them in many ways: ferment them, brine, pickle, smoke, raw...”

Jamon iberico at market
Jamon iberico at market
Photographer: Dixmen/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Angela Hartnett (Murano, London): Garlic and rosemary. “Garlic brings everything to life, so long as you don’t use too much, and I adore rosemary. It’s beautifully aromatic.”

Helene Darroze (Helene Darroze, Paris): Potatoes. “They are so versatile. I love mash, French fries, gratin dauphinois, gnocchi, pommes boulangère, tortilla...”

Marco Pierre White (Rudloe Arms, Corsham, England): Butter. “It makes everything taste better. Butter and salt are the two ingredients you can’t do without.”

Pierre Koffmann (Koffmann’s, London): Salt. “The difference between a good dish and a bad dish is a pinch of salt.”

Jamie Oliver (Fifteen, London): Chilies. “I am actually addicted. I add them to pretty much anything. But they’re proven to give you a bit of a lift, so it’s all good.”

Jonny Lake (The Fat Duck, Bray, England): Smoked water. “It’s a really great way of getting consistent smoked flavors into recipes, instead of smoking individual ingredients.”

José Andrés (Minibar, Washington, D.C.): Eggs. “They are the most versatile ingredient. So many techniques, dishes, sweet and savory, you can make. Nothing beats a running yolk.”

Hands of a man sorting red chillies, Pak Khlong Talat, Bangkok, Thailand.
Hands of a man sorting red chillies, Pak Khlong Talat, Bangkok, Thailand.
Photographer: Gavin Gough/Getty Images

Albert Adria (Tickets, Barcelona): Tomato. “If it didn’t exist, it would have to be invented. The wide range of varieties means you must know what’s in season.”

Michel Roux Jr. (Le Gavroche, London): Lemon juice. “It’s essential for all seasoning, be it fish, seafood, crustacea or vegetables. Also the zest for stews or to scent a salad.”

Eric Ripert (Le Bernardin, New York): Black truffle. “It’s such a mystical ingredient and so delicate to cook with: You can risk not developing their flavor enough or losing it altogether.”

Tom Kitchin (Kitchin, Edinburgh): Grouse. “The first grouse of the season on Aug. 12 is a monumental occasion. Grouse embodies all that is great about Scottish produce.”

Vineet Bhatia (Indego by Vineet, Dubai): Curry leaf. “It’s a great flavor on its own, wonderful to use to make butters, oils, flavored naans, biryanis, soups, etc.”

Tom Sellers (Restaurant Story, London): Horseradish. “It has a tempered heat. It’s not as aggressive as chili or mustard or wasabi, and it goes really well with beef.”

Photographer: Angelafoto/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Simon Rogan (Fera at Claridge’s, London): Zucchini. “When you get them from your own farm, you see them in every color, shape and variety, with incredible flowers, too.”

Uwe Opocensky (Ex-Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong): Cauliflower. “Roast it with turmeric and garlic and butter and it has a deep and complex flavor.”

Karam Sethi (Gymkhana, London): Onions. “They are versatile. Most Indian dishes start with an onion. They are a key ingredient, along with ginger, garlic and chilies.”

Nuno Mendes (Taberna do Mercado, London): Iberico pork. “Portugal has wonderful produce, and I champion Iberico pork in particular. There’s nothing like it.”

Richard Vines is chief food critic at Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines and Instagram @richard.vines.

(Corrects to show that chef Uwe Opocensky has left the Mandarin Oriental in story published Sept. 1.)

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