BURTON WOLF is a ham. Wolf, the co-editor of the newly published encyclopedia "The International Cook's Catalogue," sat at a kitchen table the other day clowning for the camera.
He took the lid from a Chinese fire pot and propped it on his head, looking like a space-age coolie. Click. He grabbed the Japanese boning knife, clenched it between his teeth and stuck the bamboo wok brush in his ear. Click. Reaching for the Siamese twin-style aluminum bread pans, he joked, "Did you hear about the doctor who recently joined together a pair of twins separated at birth?" Schtick.
"Why does everything today have to be dishwasher safe?" he moaned in mock despair. Picking up the Japanese knife, he lovingly caressed the smooth wooden handle. "Everything in my life has to be sensual."
Burton Wolf was demonstrating several utensils from the "Cook's Catalogue," and talking about kitchens. He tapped a stainless steel table and said, "You wouldn't find anything like this in my kitchen. It's all wood. I think a lot of people are stopping and saying, 'I want it to feel good.' Everything in the kitchen has to be sensual. I like things that feeeel good," he cried.
With a mischievous grin, Burton Wolf said softly, "Sex and food are the same to me."
So a career that might have rivaled "Frederick's of Hollywood" was devoted instead to ferreting out the creme de la creme of cooking gadgets.
"We finished the original 'Cook's Catalogue' two years ago," said Wolf. "That's when we started the ethnic equipment. Now I see both volumes as the 'Roots' of cooking."
In fact, it's more like the Whole Earth catalog of kitchen utensils, with over 800 items from more than 10 countries. There are chopping boards from Indonesia, a chestnut pan from France, a chocolate swivel from Mexico and cleavers from all over the world. There are fondue pots from Switzerland, a pair of fish tweezers from Japan, frying pans from Colombia and a fortune cookie iron from China. You can find a bamboo colander, a coconut grater, a cork retriever and croissant cutter. Madeleine tins, marmalade pots, mixing bowls and muffin tins. Whew.
"You can eat every kind of ethnic food in America," said Wolf. "Now you can buy the right equipment. If I lived in Dayton, Ohio, I could get all the ingredients and the equipment by mail."
Included in the book is a mailing list of stores where each item, priced from $2 to $225, can be ordered. "While most of us do not need a truffle cutter for everyday use," says James Beard in the introduction, "it is a classy object to have hanging in one's kitchen."
The amphasis on quality, not quantity. There is only one food processor - the $225 Cuisinart model. There are only two hand-cranked pasta machines, and only one electric model. There are no yogurt machines, no electric crepe pans and no donut makers. There are, however, five different tea strainers, 20 types of graters and nine woks. In between the utensils are companion recipes and attractive illustrations.
"It's an international sampler," said Wolf, "And it's sexy."
How did a boy from the Bronx become the world famous collector of - to put it bluntly - pots and pans?
Burton Wolf's career began in the late 1940s when he worked part-time for his grandmother. She owned a hardware store. Then, after college and the Army ("I worked as a cook"), he began a career in publishing. In 1968, he moved his wife and sons to Switzerland where he discovered the joys - and toys - of cooking.
"I literally ate my way across Europe. But I didn't get fat because I only ate the best."
Between bites, Wolf discovered the importance of proper appliances and started badgering the masters for replicas of their own utensils. As a result, Burton Wolf owns the "rights" for the next 17 years to what he terms, "The Working Tools of The French Chefs."
When he returned to America, Wolf called graphic designer and old friend Milton Glaser in a panic. "Now what do I do with them?" Glaser arranged a meeting with America's foremost chef, James Beard. "We went to Alfredo's in the Village," Wolf remembers, "And got drunk."
From that meeting, the partnership of Beard-Glaser-Wolf was born. Projects include the original "Cook's Catalogue," published by Harper & Row, designing the houseware section "Cook's Corner" for Bloomingdale's, and 11 books, including the new "International Cook's Catalogue" (Random House; $19.95), and "Where to Eat in America," a national restaurant guide also published by Random House, co-edited by Wolf and William Rice, published this week.
It is no accident that Wolf was chosen to promote the catalog, but a tour of 26 cities has been cancelled. "I wanted to spend more time with my kids," he said.
Burton Wolfe also said he likes to cook to music. His favorite tune? Monty Python's, "Stop All Your Bitchin' and Get in the Kitchen and Rattle Those Pots and Pans."