Week 47: Be Skilled With a Knife

The week-long limit to challenges was a necessity in order to experience a full spectrum of manliness in a year, but it’s not without its downside.  Variety may be the spice of life, but it doesn’t pair well with proficiency.  Experiences I had at the beginning of this grand experiment seem as distant to me as classes I took in high school.  Maybe I’ve missed the point.  If I had spent an entire year learning to become skilled with, say, a safety razor, my shaving technique would be at a level of precision only matched by my skill at eating and showering.  And I still manage to bite my cheek or get soap in my eyes every now and then.

I get asked, “Did anything stick?” quite a bit now that the project is nearing a conclusion.  I’d like to be able to say that I now have an aptitude for something besides drinking scotch.  My genetic predisposition and interest in eating would make cooking skills a reasonable area in which expertise might be obtainable, but I still need to narrow it down.  I need to zero in on a specific technique with which I already have some experience, and something that could produce visible results after a week’s worth of practice.  This led me to the Knife Skills class offered by the Brooklyn Kitchen.  I’m often precariously close to cutting myself when I chop veggies, and I have grown fond of my fingers.  I do have decent fine motor skills, however, and it seems like a push in the right direction would be all I need to go from a near-disaster to a julienne master.

rows of knives

Our class of twelve students is led by Kate, who studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and teaches a Julia Child cooking class at the Brooklyn Kitchen.  Though we could have brought our knives from home, Q and I decide to borrow chef’s knives from Kate.  Q and I bought our knives set when we first moved in together almost six years ago, and we had strict rules to keep them pristine.  We told ourselves we would always keep our knives sharp and never leave them in the sink overnight.  Ah, the high hopes of new cohabitants.  I think our knives set is in decent shape, but I also like to think the same baking soda box that’s been living in our fridge for a year is still working.

Kate begins by talking about the different parts of the knife and discusses the four knives you’ll need to do just about any cut, the chef’s knife being the tool required for the majority of cuts.  She then explains the difference between honing and sharpening a knife.  I thought when I saw Gordon Ramsay on TV scraping his knife back and forth against a cylindrical stick, he was sharpening his knife, but he was really just honing it.  When Kate asks us to try honing, I want to be as intimidating as Gordon Ramsay is, but then I remember that the last time I tried to mimic knife play on TV, it didn’t end so well.  So I stick to slow and steady.

kids kitchen

Next, our teacher passes out bowls of celery to each table.  Before we start cutting, she demonstrates how to position your non-cutting hand in a stiff, curved position she calls the “angry bear claw.”  Kate also shows us the correct way to move the knife, similar to the way a rod that connects train wheels oscillates.  It’s awkward only for a moment before it becomes obvious that this is the right way to cut.  Each time Kate visits our table to check on our individual progress, she compliments my technique and it goes straight to my head.   Her kudos makes me believe I can go faster and show off, but each moment of praise is followed by a near-loss of a finger or a drop of the knife off the cutting board.  Sometimes I think I do better with solely negative reinforcement.

After the celery, we cut up carrots and an onion, the latter of which makes me cry every time.  Q wears swim goggles to combat onion vapors, but I’m hoping Kate has a solution that won’t result in raccoon eyes.  She doesn’t have any magic tricks, but she does teach us a way to dice an onion that utilizes only about twelve specific cuts and reduces chopping time to the point that the vapors don’t even reach our nose.  It might as well be a magic trick to me.

bk cutting board

Besides learning good technique, the other big takeaway from the class is that I’ll never cut properly if I don’t take proper care of my tools.  Kate lists off most of my typical interactions with my knives – leaving them in the sink, cleaning them in the dishwasher, scraping food off the cutting board with the knife edge – as big no-nos.  Kate suggests we get our knives sharpened regularly and only buy new knives one at a time, instead of in sets.  She says the only way to get better is to continue practicing and tells us to buy a five-pound bag of potatoes to practice our cuts, so on the way home, I do just that.

And then the bag sits on my kitchen counter for days on end.  Outside of the encouraging Brooklyn Kitchen environment, my responsibilities of work, writing, and general housekeeping get in the way of bettering my cooking skills.  The potatoes are growing eyes, each new sprout a reminder of how I’m shirking my duties.

My guinea pig Oliver eats a handful of veggies twice a day so I try to incorporate my cutting practice into his daily feedings.  He’s not a discerning foodie and doesn’t mind when my alumette cut veers into batonnet.  Or if he does notice, he doesn’t speak up.  I cut up his carrots the way Kate taught us in class and focus on precision rather than speed.  After a couple days, I can feel those bad habits start to disappear from my muscle memory.

proper position

Once I get into the rhythm of utilizing this new cutting technique on lettuce, green pepper, and tomatoes, I force myself to cut at least a couple potatoes a day until I go through the whole bag.  After the last diced potato, the oscillating arm motion and angry bear claw have become second nature to me, but my speed remains slow and steady.  I’m on the road to proficiency, but I didn’t see the radical transformation I wanted.

But expecting mastery after a week’s worth of practice is no less dense than expecting it after a two-hour class.  Time limits and learning do not go hand in hand.  When I got my first guitar at thirteen, I spent the first few weeks trying to teach myself chords from a video and then let my acoustic guitar collect dust for the rest of the year, after You Can Teach Yourself Guitar! proved to be as misleading of a title as The Neverending Story.  Thankfully, my guitar’s constant presence in my bedroom forced me to reconsider my failure, and in its second year of life, I took a group lesson and haven’t looked back since.

chopped potatoes

If I had said I’m only giving myself one year to learn guitar, I would have given up before I even learned my first chord.  Maybe I’ll think about my chef’s knife in the same way one day, lamenting the days I wasted with poor technique.  In any case, this week served as yet another reminder to forget about the results and just enjoy the journey.


In the narrow guidelines of this challenge, I didn’t see the results I expected after a week.  The title is “Be Skilled With a Knife,” not simply “Use a Knife.”  I don’t hone my knife like Gordon Ramsay.  I don’t chop like Emeril.  But the nice thing about cooking is I’ll be doing it for the rest of my life no matter what.  As long as I keep getting hungry, I’ll have opportunities to practice cutting.  Even if I only used my knife two hours a week, I’d still hit Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours in 96 years.  And then I’ll be a 124-year-old master chef!  I’ll practically be guaranteed my own TV show then!  So forget what I said – maybe the results matter a little if it means you get to be on TV.  3.76.