By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Dec 06, 2013 at 11:02 AM Photography:

In the 1983 movie "A Christmas Story," there’s just one thing 9-year-old Ralphie Parker wants to find under the tree: "an official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot range model air rifle!"

"You’ll shoot your eye out," is the discouraging response from every adult Ralphie encounters.  And yet, in the end Santa comes through for Ralphie. And – despite myriad mishaps along the way – the movie culminates with a scene showing Ralphie lying in bed on Christmas night with his gun by his side and a declaration from the narrator that the BB gun is the best present ever.

I’ll be honest, I can make lists and lists of "best gifts to give," and you can follow my advice to the tee; but, Ralphie’s satisfaction is pretty difficult to beat.

And yet most of us have at least one gift over the years that really stands out.

For me, it wasn’t a material gift, per se. But, there was a memorable year when, as a gift, my Dad forgave me every last penny of the debt I owed him. Truthfully, the sum total probably amounted to just around two thousand dollars. But, for an unemployed twenty-something, fresh out of college, it was a really big deal. And it wasn’t something I took lightly.

In fact, to this day, I still think about how to give gifts that have that lasting impact. And I always love to hear the stories others tell about gifts that really made them swoon.  So, I asked a few chefs to share their favorite memories of holiday gifts.

Some, like Chris Benedyck of Love Handle, love the element of surprise.

"I love seeing hopes and promises on faces when the presents open," he says. "For that split second before you see what is inside, it could be anything."

But, for him, it’s not just about the physical gifts.

"It is perfect for me when I am with family and friends and out of the daily everyday stuff. I love when the food is potluck, or when there is a matriarch nervously running the family kitchen," he says. "People get tired because they eat too much, people get drunk because they drink too much … for a few days out of the year everyone is stripped of their rank and they just participate in this loving circus. It is fantastic. That is my favorite gift and I hope to have more and more of them while I am here."

Of course, as you might expect, chefs are also prone to fondly remembering the food related gifts they’ve received over the years.

For Andrew Miller of Hom Woodfired Grill, it was a dinner for two at Alinea in Chicago that inspired him to really put in the effort to take his career to the next level.

"It was Christmas time in 2007," he says. "I was just getting ready to ship off to Hyde Park, NY for culinary school. I had the pleasure of experiencing Alinea at a very young age. I was already really immersing myself in cooking and food at the time but the whole experience really propelled my focus to learn as much as I could from that point on."

Similarly, Justin Carlisle of Ardent, looks back fondly on the first cookbook he ever received at the age of 17. It was a copy of "White Heat" by Marco Pierre White, and it came from a friend he cooked with.

"I couldn’t put it down," he says. "It was my first insight to life in this profession. White is a legend, and in the book he didn’t hold back any of his feelings. It has been one of my favorites -- and a reference book -- for me to this day. And I still read it and give it to the people that work for me who I think it will affect."

Books, in fact, were mentioned by countless chefs I spoke with – including Jarvis Williams of Carnevor.

"A few days before Christmas last year," he says, "My fiance, Michele, brought in this gigantic box and put it next to the tree. It was so big and heavy that it couldn't be moved, and I thought it was for our son Ishmael."

But, when Christmas morning arrived, Williams was surprised to learn that the gigantic box was for him. And he was even more shocked to find out that the box contained the "Modernist Cuisine" series, a set of books was named "the most important cookbook of the first ten years of the 21st century." 

"My mouth dropped," he says. "And then I let out a few expletives … sorry, I was in shock and I got a little emotional."

Williams was certain to set the record straight that he "DID NOT CRY," but he was definitely moved. After all, he had a plan to start saving up so he could buy a set of the books the following summer.

"In recent memory, that’s the best gift I’ve received," he finishes. "And now I'm looking forward to receiving another large box of cookbooks this Christmas because Michele has now set the bar extremely high."

Kitchen tools also rank up there pretty high for chefs, at least according to Zachary Espinosa, executive chef at Harbor House who says that the best gift he’s ever received was an All-Clad Copper Core four-quart saute pan, which he received from his wife for Christmas a year or two before they were married.

"I use it for everything," he says. "It is my crown jewel in the kitchen."

He also told me that he’s always excited to receive kitchen items as gifts.

"You never know when you're going to get the next great thing!" he says. "It's also fun trying to figure out alternative uses for common kitchen products."

Others, like Chef Dan Jacobs of Wolf Peach, have memories of gifts that are a bit more of the "Christmas Story" variety.

The email Jacobs sent back to me with his answer was filled with exclamation points.

"The Millennium Falcon!!!!!!"  he wrote. "My dad would stay up late into the night building all this cool Star Wars sh*t for my brother and I! We were like 6 and 5 … and almost 40 years later, Star Wars is still the coolest sh*t around!!!!!!"

Yup. Mr. Jacobs, you got that one right for sure.

So, what’s the best gift YOU ever received?  Leave your answer in the Talkbacks below. I’d love to read it.

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.