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The radical idea behind this kitchen brand? Selling fewer tools

Material Kitchen, a new startup founded by an ex-Chanel and Valentino exec, challenges the idea that we need dozens of different gadgets to cook.

The cookware industry thrives on making you feel like you need hundreds of highly specialized tools to make your dinner. This is perhaps why, in the decade and a half since I graduated from college, I have accumulated heaps of kitchen tools, most of which are poorly made and don’t get much use. I recently took a glance at my utensil drawer and found: 12 different knives, five spatulas (some metal, some silicone), slotted spoons, regular spoons, a pasta spoon, a ladle, a pizza cutter, a garlic smasher, metal tongs, and plastic tongs. As someone who likes clean, minimal spaces, opening this drawer often puts me on the verge of a minor heart attack.

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Material Kitchen is here to help. This direct-to-consumer startup, which launched earlier this year, creates a grand total of nine tools (plus a base to hold them in). Material sells the products entirely through its website, cutting out middleman costs and brick-and-mortar overhead, which means products are less expensive than others on the market of comparable quality. Material’s founders–Eunice Byun and David Nguyen–focus on design and functionality in equal measure.

“We both love to cook for our families,” Byun says. “After years of working at hard-charging corporate jobs, we now want to spend more time at home. We set out to create the tools that we wished we had as home cooks.”

Eunice Byun and David Nguyen [Photo: Material Kitchen]
The average home cook can find plenty of inexpensive kitchenware from Target and Amazon. On the higher end of the market, at retailers like Williams Sonoma and Sur La Table, brands tend to create specialized gadgets and gizmos for professional chefs, or at least amateurs that aspire to create complex, gourmet meals. This is why a utensil set from one of these high-end stores might have separate spatulas for burgers and fish, plus a separate classic and slotted spatula. Material has a different approach: It creates a few simple and versatile tools specifically for the everyday cook, who is more likely to whip up a simple meal of pasta and roast salmon than duck a l’orange.

Material’s focus on fewer but more functional tools can be partly attributed to the fact that its founders don’t come from the kitchen or restaurant industries. Nguyen spent years at Chanel and Valentino, leading business planning, and Byun was most recently a VP of digital marketing at Revlon. “Being outsiders in this industry can sometimes be helpful,” says Byun. “We don’t feel pressure to keep selling customers more and more products. We’d rather they own a few Material products that they really need and love.”

[Photo: Material Kitchen]
Nguyen’s background in the luxury industry means that he sometimes thinks of creating a knife or a pair of tongs like he would a high-end handbag. Material’s emphasis, as its name suggests, is on what its design is made out of. The knives, for instance, are made from three layers of Japanese stainless steel. All of the wood is sourced from the U.S. The founders scoured the globe to find the right factory to make these goods, and settled on one located in the Yangjiang Province in Southern China where artisans have been making knives, scissors, and other cooking utensils for 1,400 years. It’s been called the knife capital of China and is home to more than 1,500 different manufacturers. “Many people don’t realize that China has deep expertise in making kitchenware,” Byun says.

[Photo: Material Kitchen]
Material thinks of its product selection as a harmonious collection, much like a designer might create a set of looks for a season. It launched with only seven products, all of which are made from wood and stainless steel. There were two knives, one large and one small, a wooden spoon, a metal spoon, a slotted spatula, and tongs. If you’re looking for a beautiful way to store your utensils, Material has created a wooden “base” for them, with one side that is magnetic, so you can attach your knives to it without dulling them. This week, the brand rolled out three new items: a slotted spoon, a whisk, and a serrated knife.

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You can buy the entire set for $245, or buy individual items piecemeal; a knife, for instance, costs $75. This is more expensive than the average Target set, and is on par with entry-level sets from Williams-Sonoma. It’s significantly cheaper than the higher end of the market, where a knife can cost upwards of $200. And importantly, Materials’ founders believe these tools will allow you to do more with less, meaning you won’t need as many products. “And we believe that these nine tools can cover almost all your bases,” Byun says. “And we worked to make these items as functional as possible.”

[Photo: Material Kitchen]
Some of that functionality only comes to light when you’ve used the products for a little while. For instance, the metal spoon happens to hold a quarter of a cup, which means that you can use it to measure ingredients as you’re cooking. The metal tongs can be locked shut with one hand by holding them with the pincers facing up, and opened again, when the pincers face down.

While the founders have emphasized a less-is-more approach in their design, they still give you the ability to customize your utensil set to fit your kitchen. You can choose either white or black handles, and you can choose a darker or lighter wood for the base. And there are tiny aesthetic details on the utensils that people may not notice on first glance, like the “M” engraved in the stainless steel tip of every tool, or the delicate asymmetrical pattern on the spatula.

Ultimately, Byun and Nguyen believe that while beautiful tools don’t necessarily result in more delicious food, they may make the cooking experience more pleasurable, especially when you look at your tools every single day. “Our goal is to make cooking a more delightful experience,” says Byun. “We think that if you love your tools, you’ll be more likely to cook more.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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