Getting a Grip: The Business of Knives

3284369_2cc1c8ba04_mI went to Back to Basics cooking school at The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts a few years back and blogged about it for The website no longer exists so I’m reprinting them here. Enjoy!

Day One

I have been cooking nutritious and creative food for friends and family for 20 years.  I think all fed would agree that they are preprogrammed to expect only the best when they arrive for a meal.

Along the way, I have picked up tips from cookbooks, magazines, and friends. I eavesdrop at the fish and meat counters, and pester chefs at my favorite restaurants for their advice and insight. And yet, for all of the tasty and adventurous meals I have created, few have been perfect.

Mind you, I don’t aim for Martha Stewart perfection, and in fact, I relish my supply of mismatched napkins and odd-sized glasses.  For me, it has always been about the food and I am my own worst critic.  Sometimes I feel that my dishes lack depth of flavor. Other times, the seasonings might be right but the meal is all the same color. And so on. So, after two decades of cooking by the seat of my pants, I decide to take action.  I enroll in a six-week “Back to Basics” cooking class at The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts.

Day One. I walk into a large room with desks at one end and a professional kitchen at the other. It is surprisingly un-fragrant, considering that this is a kitchen that has seen a lot of action. Eighteen of my fellow cooking students sit at their own desks and face a counter with a large adjustable mirror above it, positioned so that we can see our instructor Steve’s hands.

Steve Nill is a tall, handsome man in his 50s with a grin that suggests total job satisfaction.  At odds with that is Steve’s assertion that kitchen work is a young person’s job complete with low pay, few benefits if any, and a great deal of stress.  He adds the occupational downer that you’re always at work when your friends are at play.  Steve wears a chef’s uniform of checkered pants and double-breasted white jacket topped off with a toque—a hat that evokes a perfectly risen soufflé. His enthusiasm indicates that it is unlikely he will ever return to his previous career- in finance.


Introducing Steve Nill…

We get down to the business of knives.  “The four must-have knives of every kitchen are a chef’s knife—preferably 8 inches; a boning knife, a serrated or bread knife, and a paring knife.”  Steve demonstrates the most stable and controlled grip: grasp the handle with three fingers and hold the blade between the thumb and index finger. Horror and relief hit me simultaneously; although I have been holding my knife incorrectly for twenty years, I haven’t shed any blood because of it. In fact, I have managed to escape with only two kitchen injuries, neither of which involved knives (don’t ask).

Steve also demonstrates proper knife sharpening, on a stone at a 20-degree angle.  After a few words about knife safety, he shows us some basic dicing, mincing, and slicing techniques including how to cut an onion properly (tears notwithstanding).

Then, we gather around the large stainless steel table in the middle of the kitchen to practice. There’s a designated area for each of us, complete with apron, cutting board (secured to the counter by a rug pad fragment), 8-inch chef’s knife, a paring knife and, according to Steve, the essential “y”-shaped vegetable peeler. We are told to face the counter squarely and grip the object to be cut with our “claw” (thumb tucked under so it doesn’t accidentally end up in the sauté pan).  The claw feels awkward and I develop a slicing pain across my upper back. Steve tells me to relax, but the combination of claw grip, sharp knife and roomful of strangers makes this easier said than done.

At the end, we sit down together at a long table and eat our experiments—minced garlic on bread, diced pear-zucchini soup and perfectly julienned French fries. We are especially thankful that the food is flesh-free. I have a lot to learn.

Tomorrow: eggs

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