Just as no figure skater ever won a gold medal solely for executing perfect figure eights, no one will become a great chef simply on the elegance of his brunoise. Show too much focus on juliennes and chiffonades, and you can be dismissed as a technician without soul. But without sharp knife skills, food cooks unevenly, expensive meat and fish turn raggedy, and lots of time and ingredients are wasted.
Beyond the purely practical value in good knife skills, there is a certain pride of blade—more often than not, a masculine pride—that goes with elegant handling. The kitchen knife is the domestic stand-in for the sword, and men who might otherwise show little interest in cookery can be quick to volunteer when it comes to cutting up whatever beast is for dinner. In his 1808 Host's Manual, the great French gourmand Grimod de la Reynière shamed gentlemen who did not know how to cut up a roast: "The host who does not know how to carve, nor to serve is like someone who has a fine library and cannot read. The one is almost as shameful as the other." These days, cooking-school students compete in knife-skills contests where they are judged on both the alacrity and the precision of their work (this knife, with a built-in ruler, is made for such competitions), and TV chefs from Martin Yan of Yan Can Cook to last year's Top Chef winner, Hung Huynh, have shown no small degree of satisfaction in their own rapid-fire food prep.
Alas, such pride of knife cannot be attributed to the man in my household, my husband, Andrew. Though not otherwise lacking in manly skills (like technical support or IKEA assembly), he is happy to defer to me when it comes to cutting up flesh, vegetable, or fruit. This has something to do with the eight years I spent as a professional cook, slicing mountains of onions, chopping forests of parsley, and gutting and filleting more fish than I care to remember. I was never the best knife worker in the kitchen, but those years of practice have paid off when it comes to prepping at home.
I had two major breakthroughs in my own knife-skills training. First, I learned to seek stability in whatever object I was cutting, usually by slicing a thin piece off the bottom of the carrot or zucchini or lemon in question, in order to keep it from rolling. It's simple, but it made my gleaming chef's knife seem a lot less dangerous. Secondly, I learned to work systematically left to right—keeping a pile of uncut items on the one side of my knife, and the chopped items on the other—so that I didn't waste time shuffling the ingredients around the board. That kind of organization keeps you moving along at a fast clip.
Somehow, Andrew hasn't sought out such pearls of wisdom from me, but the release of Norman Weinstein's new book-plus-DVD, Mastering Knife Skills, got me wondering whether it would be possible to get Andrew dicing the occasional onion and cutting bagels in a way that doesn't threaten his brachial artery. Weinstein is a longtime chef instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, and Mastering Knife Skills is copiously illustrated with photo close-ups demonstrating grips and knife positions. In the accompanying video, Weinstein is pleasantly fluid and matter-of-fact. He mostly focuses on the basic cuts that are useful to home cooks: dicing vegetables, segmenting citrus fruit, breaking down chickens, filleting fish, and other essential maneuvers (although for some reason he spends a few pages explaining how to make hotel-style garnishes like lemon baskets and tomato roses). Could Weinstein provide a knife-skills makeover for Andrew? Lured by the promise of an appearance in Slate, my hammy spouse volunteered.
I videotaped Andrew before and after he had watched and read Weinstein on four basic knife operations: slicing a bagel, carving a roast chicken, coring strawberries, and dicing onions.
Weinstein managed to reform my husband when it came to bagel slicing—for years I've shivered as he cuts his bagel towards the palm of his hand.
The roast chicken test wasn't really fair—I picked up two birds from the grocery store that were so plumped with fillers and overcooked they fell apart as soon as he touched them with a knife. Besides, even before reading the book and watching the video, Andrew already had the bird-carving basics down, though he needed some more practice in skimming the knife close to the rib bones to minimize wasted breast meat. A minor complaint from me: Weinstein did not remind newbie carvers to pay particular attention to the "oyster" of the chicken—the tasty morsel of flesh that clings to the top of the thigh, and is easily lost if the carver does not keep it in mind.
Weinstein's scary-looking method for hulling strawberries improved Andrew's technique, which had involved rolling the berries on a cutting board while awkwardly spearing them with a paring knife. Weinstein recommends pinching the knife blade and turning the strawberry around it. It worked nicely, though Andrew isn't ready to change his working habits just to beautify our 3-year-old's lunch box.
The biggest teaching triumph came with the onion—one of the most common items cut in the kitchen, and one that I see bungled regularly by amateur cooks. Andrew's pre-Weinstein cuts were awkward and haphazard, but he quickly got the gist of leaving the onion connected at the root end, crosshatching it, and then slicing it into regular-sized pieces. Weinstein didn't invent this method but he communicates it well, and Andrew took to it right away.
Weinstein has impressively managed to put words to motions that I could only learn by watching and doing. Like any tennis coach worth his salt, he talks of follow-through in the basic knife stroke—"this is really a continuous, elliptical sequence of motions, not a push-stop-pull-stop sequence." Yet as I watched Andrew work, I was often tempted to jump in and correct his little inefficiencies—it's one thing to read about "elliptical sequences," and quite another to execute such a maneuver without someone on hand to explain what you're doing wrong. I also couldn't help but think that in the end, Andrew would need to set aside Weinstein's book and just practice. Somewhere around the 100th minced clove of garlic, he'll get the essence of the action. By the 1,000th, he'll stop thinking about what he's doing.
Mastering Knife Skills is not really for accomplished blade-handlers—a large portion of the book is devoted to elementary purchasing information, and when it comes to cutting techniques, Weinstein tries to keep the book uncomplicated and unintimidating by winnowing down the available information. He doesn't tell you how to bone out a leg of lamb, because that's something you'd probably have your butcher do. But he leaves out a few handy techniques: how to prepare an artichoke, for example; how to handle a pear's funky core; or how to portion a fish once you've filleted it. On a larger scale, it would also be helpful to have some information on knife skills in context: how to manage your cutting board as you scale up an operation like peeling and slicing multiple onions for a soup. (Perform each step of the operation to all of the onions before moving on to the next step.) This systematic stuff is harder to find for free on the Web, unlike, say, the technique for dicing an onion, which can be had in countless variations, both in still photos and in video form.
Despite my quibbles, I'm grateful to Weinstein for giving Andrew a primer in how to chop an onion safely, something I never managed to do in the 16-odd years we've been together. Now if I can just keep him from gesticulating wildly with our 10-inch chef's knife as he does it, our kitchen will be a safer place.