I’ve always been jealous of what my mother and father can do with a paring knife. I don’t know what it is, but they both possess a sort of awesome dexterity when cutting something with a paring knife, that is until my mother’s arthritis left Dad as the sole paring knife expert in the family. In particular, the way they are able to cut apples has always been a point of envy. No matter how many years I’ve been out of their home (going on 25 at this point) or how many times I’ve tried, I have not been able to emulate that apple cutting. First in half, then scooping out the seeds in each half in one circular motion, then cutting two perfect little triangle shapes at each end to get rid of the stem and the buttend. Every time I try I mess it up–not cutting quite in half and throwing off the symmetry of the little triangles, not being able to make a circle that doesn’t either go outside the lines or cut too deeply into the flesh so that it’s a mess.
Of course being able to wield a knife and do it well enough to evenly cut vegetables into perfect little cubes or pretty slanted shapes or chop a chicken’s breast bone in half is the basis for all cooking skills. And so, week one of cooking school is learning knife skills, as well as the art of mis en place, or everything in its place. In other words, kitchen prep.
I know going in that the way I cut and chop is totally wrong in the professional sense. I’ve watched enough cooking shows on TV over the years to have some sense of how it’s done, but there are definitely things I’m doing totally incorrectly. In particular, I have some minor fear around cutting onions properly. I am absolutely doing it the wrong way. I know this because a chef actually showed me the correct way to do it a couple of years ago, and I chose to modify his professionally correct method with a variation of my own that avoids the dreaded horizontal layered cuts from the bottom to the top of the onion that give you a good dice. The horizontal cut frankly scares me. It’s reminds me of the time I made the mistake of opening a box of press kit materials at work with a pair of scissors. One 3-hour trip to the emergency room with a huge gash in my calf later, I learned to always open boxes with the scissors pointed away from me, not toward me.
Thus the fear around horizontal vegetable cutting – it just feels like another trip to the emergency room waiting to happen. Of course what really makes the difference and allows for a horizontal cut is having a knife sharp enough to easily slice through whatever you’re cutting. After watching our Chef/instructor Mike C. wielding his knife skills, I figure out that I am doing a number of things wrong:
- My knives aren’t sharp enough. I should be sharpening them almost every time I use them, and most definitely when they’re not cutting stuff easily.
- Cutting awkward shapes is easier if you start with a stabilization cut that allows the foodstuff to lie or stand flat on the cutting board.
- I hold my knives and make cutting strokes incorrectly. I should be gripping the blade with thumb and forefinger just above the handle and wrapping my hand around the handle accordingly. What is a bit frustrating about learning this is that now, what has always been my favorite knife, my Santoku, now feels funny when I try to make the correct cutting motions. As a result, I am surprised to realize that it might feel more natural for me to use a regular old chef’s knife from now on. Sad for Santoku (but I can probably still use that for chopping, which requires a more shorter stroke).
- My favorite way to cut herbs–holding the top of the knife blade and chopping in sort of a radial motion to get a fine mince is totally wrong, too! Not only is it wrong, but Chef Mike C. makes a face when demonstrating my favorite method as if to say this method is for culinary trash only. It is definitely déclassé, and I am knife trash. Here I thought I was doing one thing correctly, but I wasn’t. I am dismayed…
- My fear of onion cutting is justified. When I try to cut one for the first time, I completely mess it up and have to go get another onion to try it again. I can tell the onion is going to be the bane of my culinary existence and it’s going to take a lot of practice for me to unlearn my way and do it properly.
- Fear of cutting myself prevents me from engaging properly with the knife with my guide hand. Chef Mike C. calls this “The Claw“–named after the shape your guide hand should make when using it to guide the food and knife. I think my fingernails are too long for the claw, which, granted, is counterintuitive. But I feel like the knife ends up grazing my nails rather then staying stable because it’s against my first knuckle. This one will also take practice.
Finally, mis en place. Getting all your ingredients ready and into prep bowls and being organized makes the cooking process flow more easily and you don’t end up running around the kitchen trying to get the chicken bits cut up while the onions and garlic are burning in the pan. I ALWAYS do this. Trying to be efficient by chopping and cooking at the same time ends up with burned food and chaos. Another lesson learned. Actually, that’s a lesson I’ve learned many times before as I’ve burned my garlic and onions. Something else to unlearn. I’ve got my work “cut” out for me…