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Kitchen Ninja

Turn off the Food Network and get yourself a good knife; here’s what it takes to cook like a chef

by B.A. Nilsson on December 13, 2012

Of course you can cook. All it takes is desire (which, in the world of food, wears the more appealing name “hunger”), practice and a hungry (which, in the world of socializing, is called “desirable”) victim.

In the old days, it was a craft handed down in a household’s kitchen. You learned from a parent or grandparent. It was a social event, turning seemingly boring tasks such as snapping beans or shelling chestnuts into relaxing occasions for chat.

As the learn-at-home options diminish, cooking classes (and instructional TV shows) have boomed. I’ve climbed onto the teaching bandwagon, which leads me, perhaps unprofitably, to ask: Do such classes actually help? If I’m the teacher, yes. But I can also suggest that you throw away any erstwhile cookbook with the words “30 Minute” anywhere in the title, and spend some profitable kitchen time honing your skills.

Beginning with honing a knife or two. Knowing your way around a good blade provides both efficiency and safety. A friend insists that knives are safest when dull, against which I argue with passion and, in the end, futility. This is a person who’s frightened of knives, a fear that can’t be conquered until you’re able to wield such tools with the confidence that comes from practice. Lots of it. You don’t need to be able to slice things at maniacal speed. But you should work toward that goal. It forces others to take you seriously as a chef, and, should a party get out of hand, it can clear a kitchen of undesirables.

As a fledgling waiter, I worked for a chef at a fancy restaurant in the Westchester County suburbs, a little tavern where weeknights could be slow and I’d spend too much time in the kitchen, listening to the chef boast of his amatory prowess. One evening this led me to neglect a young couple—our only customers at that point—who had finished dinner and awaited dessert. They’d ordered soufflés, a house specialty. But the chef was boasting and lost track of the time. The soufflés fell. He swore and assembled another pair and got them into the oven. And continued with prep work, boning some meat. It must have been around 10 PM when the kitchen door was pushed open and the young man poked his head in and asked, haltingly, “Will the dessert be ready soon?”

“Yes, yes,” the chef insisted. “Yes!” The young man withdrew his head, the door swung back, and the small knife that the chef had been wielding now quivered in the wall that, seconds before, had been blocked by the fellow’s head.

More important than your aim, however, is the ability to perform cutting tasks with minimal movement, which increases efficiency, and to keep your fingers intact while doing so. Your blade must be sharp, your grip correct, your technique studied. If you want to learn it the way I did, become a novice working the line in a busy kitchen with an angry chef screaming at you night after night, exhorting you to pick up your goddamn speed.

I take it for granted that anyone who is paying for a couple of cooking-class hours doesn’t wish to be hollered at (although, now that I think of it, it might give the class a unique reality- TV aspect). So the best I can offer in that short space of time is what was offered to me way back then by the pantry guy, who took me aside one day between shifts and showed me how to hold and wield a chef’s knife. He suggested I start with a basket of mushrooms, and soon I was able to show off my ability to slice a bushel of onions for onion soup without too many tears.

Hold a knife correctly and it does most of the work for you. The fulcrum is a point just in front of the handle, which you pinch with thumb and forefinger, curling the index finger out of the way. Your remaining three fingers grip the handle. Slicing becomes a matter of bringing the knife’s weight against the item to be cut—sometimes from front to back, more often the otherway around. Using the correct knife is also important. Others in my family are fond of grabbing steak

knives for small jobs, which wastes too much effort. The cheap items in our knife block can barely get through a steak, never mind something like an onion. Besides, owning (and displaying) an array of different knives makes you look like an expert. Even though you’ll end up using your 10-inch chef’s knife most of the time.

After the knife skills come a few basic stoveside techniques: sautéeing, of course, which you probably already do with eggs. But try poaching them. Or baking them into a frittata. Or cooking an omelette in a double-boiler setup. You’re learning the chemistry of heat and food, and soon enough you’ll be roasting and braising and more.

Through repetition, you’ll understand what the ingredients in your braising liquid bring to the table, which means you’re learning the magic of component flavors. I was helped to that end by a chef who insisted that I isolate the herbs and spices we used, spending a week or so learning how each tastes alone and in combination. The fact that I was cranking out lunches and dinners like a madman meant I didn’t have a lot of time for experimentation, saving most of it for the meals we fed the patient, long-suffering staff. I will note that cloves week got a little out of hand, prompting the recommendation that I scale my innovations back a bit.

Gadgetry is great, but familiarize yourself with prep at first through doing it by hand. Whip cream with a wire whisk. Do the same to make mayonnaise, and use the same technique to make a Caesar dressing. All three of which can be done in a fraction of the time by machine but you’ll miss, with the mayo, learning what the process of emulsification looks and feels like— knowledge and experience that pay off when you have to fix a broken Hollandaise sauce, for example. Before committing your spices to an electric grinder, pulverize them with a mortar and pestle. Get a feel for the force it takes.

Cooking well is a fearless activity. I don’t tend to measure things (few chefs do). It’s a luxury born of experience, an example of how experience becomes liberating. Back in my line- cooking days, I had to cut tenderloin slices of exactly eight ounces. From a financial standpoint, there’s little room there for error, but the chef showed me how to eyeball the portion, then weigh it to see how close I’d gotten. After a couple of weeks, I no longer needed to use the scale, which made for a more efficient line.

You’d better believe that I make mistakes, even in class in front of all those people I’d prefer to think of me as perfect. But I challenge myself to work through the errors, explaining as I go. Above all, I have fun, and I hope it (and nothing else) is infectious. Cooking and eating can be the most joyful of communal activities, which is why they become central to the holidays. I’ve touched here on the most important aspects except for one, but fear not: Invite me over, and I’ll bring the wine.