I posted the photo here some time ago for a Becks and Posh event called "Utensibility". Entries were to describe the kitchen item closest to your heart, without which you would be, if not helpless, at least bereft. This old French enamelware utensil rack was a steal on ebay, probably because impassioned collectors of European enamelware tend to prefer delicate colors and florals, rather than flaming orange. I'm not a collector, I just love this particular thing, which is in excellent condition, almost entirely chip-free, and hence very usable.
I use it all the time, and also love to see it hanging on my walls, which I painted elephant gray, to match the interior enamel. That will give you some idea of just how much I adore this object. My point here, before I go on to list another category of basic kitchen needs, is that every kitchen should have a thing or two which is/are not only useful, but delightful to it's resident cook. You'll know it when you see it- if you're in a shop, or at a yard sale, or dumpster diving- it will pretty much leap into your arms. I'm just saying, don't set it down again just because it isn't the most practical thing in sight. You'll be glad you didn't.
As far as utensils you need, bare minimum, I suggest the following:
3 knives: a chef's knife 8", or longer if you like a big one, German or French style; a paring knife; and a serrated utility knife, not too long, which will slice your tomatoes and your bread, neatly. As I'm sure you've heard before- if you have a little bit of money, this is where it should go. Good full-tang forged knives take a sharp edge, and they last forever, they are a cook's best friend, etc.
High carbon stainless is the material of choice, unless you are into extreme knife grooming. If you are such a knife person, you can go to carbon steel, which can rust, but sharpens like a dream. You can find really good carbon steel knives, including unused old stock, on ebay, for much less than comparable quality stainless, but they are a pain in the ass- it cannot be denied. I have one, a long slicer, by Dexter, an American brand popular with butchers. If you are not able to spend now, there are quality alternatives which will work very well, and are durable, too.
A cutting board: I like end-grain wood, but bamboo is also very nice, and cheaper. You'd like to have a big one, large enough to roll dough, knead, and carve a roast, and a baby one for chopping veg. You don't need the later if your kitchen is big enough to leave the large one out all the time, ready to go.
A long handled wooden spoon
A slotted spoon
Spatulas: a rubber one for baking, and a metal one-or my favorite ultraheat-proof silicon model, which is somewhat flexible, but not floppy
2 and 4 cup Pyrex liquid measures: which go happily into the microwave to melt butter and chocolate and are generally totally friendly, familiar and homey. If your Mom didn't have these, you probably did not grow up in the United States
A stainless colander
A tea strainer or tea ball, if you drink tea
potholders, dish towels, and dishclothes: I am very big on silicon potholders. They are less flexible than the cloth, it's true. But I am a big slob, and get food all over them. The cloth ones just don't clean up well in the wash, and always look pathetic and unclean- even when washed well. Dish cloths are better than sponges, because they can be properly laundered. If you do prefer sponges, you can clean them in the top rack of a dishwasher. Otherwise, they stink dreadfully after a week washing dishes.
long handled granny fork or a carving fork: many people inherit these, which is dandy, but you can also get new old-style ones- they are very nice
Whisks:I use my little flat one (good inside pots), and ball-ended one (emulsifies like crazy) more than my big one. But you need a couple of big ones if you don't have an electric mixer, one ballooon shape. for beating air into eggs or cream. Also, if you don't have an electric mixer- an eggbeater is an object of great usefulness and charm
fine sieve for sieving stuff or sifting flour: If you get one with a long handle, you can use it to drain small loads of veges, etc., of liquid in a hot pan.
Bowls to mix in: including one very big one, for bread and stuff, which can also serve as a large salad bowl
A proper Swingway type can opener, which will have a bottle opener on it, too
A corkscrew The "Rabbit" one is infallible. I am way more fallible than average in this area, so I am devoted to mine. If you are a handy type, you can impress others with your deft use of a simple waiters corkscrew
I forgot: you need a grater, probably two: I like the microplane files for fine grating. It makes lovely fluffy clouds of parmesan and lemon zest. Lots of people prefer a box grater for larger holes, but I like my little anonymous rectangular one, with a long handle. Then again, I do have a food processor to grate vast quantities when necessary. If you don't, a box grater is sturdier, and would probably be best.
Here are some utensils which are not strictly necessary, but are very useful:
Carving knife/meat and/or salmon slicer: You can use your chef's knife, but this sort works much better for thin slicing of meat and fishes. I don't use it often, so..mine is a carbon steel new old-stock Dexter, as discussed above. Likewise a boning knife. Yes, I am a big knife nerd. I don't use these knives so often, so I don't mind the extra care, once on a while. If you are a vegetarian, I'd skip these items.
Knife sharpener: The Furi Ozitech is a good one- the only one that has worked for me. It doesn't do serrated knives. I take them all to be sharpened professionally, once in a while anyhow. If you develop the necessary skills, you can stone sharpen your knives. I think you need a live teacher to learn this though-I haven't had any luck teaching myself from books.
Vegetable peelers- Sure you can use a knife, but these are cheap and excellent value. A second, serrated one peels soft fruits and veg-tomatoes, peaches, and plums, for example- so you don't have to scald them to get the skin off, a recent, excellent innovation
A Benringer mandoline: far cheaper than the high-class French ones, but you must commit to being very, very careful- they are fabulously sharp, and I would hate for you to bleed to death before my virtual eyes. Really, really careful.
Melon baller: also cores sliced fruit with a very tidy result
Cherry pitter- if you ever cook with multiple cherries, you've got to have this- otherwise, no
A bulb basterThese are pretty cool-I like the metal tubed ones best, the glass ones break and the plastic ones go a little melty. They have uses beyond turkey basting. For example, I can't make my favorite tart tatin without one.
potato ricer:Yes, you can mash potatoes with a fork, but this tool makes perfect mashed potatoes.
It is a little hard on the hands if you are making a lot, which is why I sprung for the OXO model.
fish spatula:Here's where you think I'm bonkers. I got this baby as a gift, and initially thought, more or less "WHAAA???". But this is a lifesaver of a tool. You can slide it under, for example, an entire hot, pan-free tart or cake or whole salmon and move it, like, across the room to another surface. I kid you not. It is very, very cool.
So, let me know what I left out, and which tools you love the most. I'm going to be adding more links to this post, but thought I'd get it up, since I'm having some slow computer problems. Next up: Part III: Stuff for Oven Cooking and Baking.