i live close to the Kershaw knife factory/warehouse every December they have sweet warehouse sale where deals can be had and every year i go and buy more knifes. fancy 250-300.00 Shun chefs knifes for 60- 80.00 bucks i picked up a discontinued line of 1 piece all stainless 12" chefs knifes for 12.00 ea got 4 of those.
My essentials are pretty much like others who listed, cast iron pan, a few sharp knives and a sharpening stone. Spoons can be whittled and you can cook anything in a good iron pan. My favorite I have is a nickel cast iron pan. It used to be nice and shiny and is as non-stick as anything new off the shelf. A Dutch oven would be a second choice, you can fry as well as bake.
A proper whetstone, or several. And as important as it is to have good stones, it's equally important NOT to have gadgets that claim to sharpen but merely ruin edges.
And knives worth sharpening, of course.. but estate sale cheapies work, they just need to have decent steel. And for a home kitchen, a thin 7" french style knife will do a great portion of whats necessary. Larger is faster sometimes but not often required. Between that medium chefs knife and a large paring knife, you can muddle through food prep fairly quickly.
And acquire more good knives as the deals go by..
Of course, I do have a bucketfull of stainless steel spoons, spatulas, whisks, and similar that's required, and similarly a batch of stainless bowls, pots, saute skillets..I only use a very few pieces of cast iron, and much of that is for camping. Stainless is lower maintenance, easier to cook with (for triclad) and doesn't hold tastes like cast does.. but you need cast to make a roux..
And Griddles! I have the long oblong one that fits over both burners of a coleman stove, cast iron and I think a Griswold.. and an aluminum one that works ok, but is low end, and it's my loaner, and a nice Cuisinart triple layer stainless one that's braggin' good. And a stove top waffle iron, any sort of heat including campfire.. and a double fry, you'ld call an omelet pan, but it's for baking on an open flame, especially biscuits. It's a champ, grab one if you ever see one for sale. But it's the griddles that are an excuse to eat more pancakes, which I needed one.