Posted by: Rae | April 25, 2008

Cuts & Burns

Oh, I like mine sharp. I like to be able to slide the knife through an onion or a garlic clove, without pushing, just gliding, and have a paper-thin slice fall off silently. The knife never gets all the way to the cutting board. And I love to get into the groove, just down, up, down, up, slices and slices falling off to the right.

I like my knife so sharp it will cut through a tomato without tearing the skin (you know your knives are dull when you have to use a serrated knife on your tomatoes). And so sharp I can skin a salmon filet in one stroke. You know how to do this, right? Skin side down, left hand on top of the filet, knife cuts from right to left, parallel to the cutting board. If you’re right-handed.

Sharper is safer. If you’re not pushing, just moving up and down easily, then you’re not likely to slip and slice off something like your finger. People who don’t know how to hold a knife, or who haven’t practiced much (young folks!), are clumsy, as we all are when we’re doing something new.

We had a sixteen-year-old dishwasher who was dying to do prep (dying to stop washing dishes anyway), and talked the chef into letting him chop onions. I walked downstairs to get something out of the walk-in cooloer, and he was standing there, kind of gray, with his hand in the air. I asked him what was going on, and found out he’d cut himself. Cut the the nail and tip off his index finger. Should have mentioned that keeping the hand that’s not holding the knife out of the way is kind of important.

I drove him to the emergency room. There is no way that kid should have been wielding a knife. The chef, of course, was angry at him for telling me he’d cut himself (some kind of kitchen machismo I didn’t get and probably a little worried about getting in trouble himself), and angry at me for taking him to the ER! A few weeks later, after everything had grown back and he returned to his dishwashing job, the rest of the guys in the kitchen harrassed him a bit. They would deliberately burn oatmeal in a saucepan and hand it to him to wash. Stuff like that. He ended up quitting, of course.

Kitchen people are like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, showing off their scars. Take burns. I’m careful in the kitchen, but I just looked at my arms, and I have three lines on the undersides of my forearms, each about an inch long, burn scars. Probably from the convection oven.

Last summer, the guys working in the kitchen burned themselves several times a day. It is really hard to avoid being burned when you’re working fast in such tight quarters. It was always the same: they turned white, grabbed the injured arm or hand, and ran for the warm water. Yes, the warm water. “Cool water, not warm!” But each one of them had been told at some time in the past by some chef to run warm water over a burn.

So, I got on the Internet. “Maybe you’ll believe the Mayo Clinic.” Or WebMD. Ha! There is no medical authority, apparently, that trumps a chef when it comes to burns. And for all their machismo, those guys were big babies about their burns. Lots of drama, rarely a blister. The kitchen is a soap opera.

But back to knives … one of the things I catch myself doing every now and again is putting my right index finger out along the top of the knife as I cut. Some kind of childhood thing, pushing on a dull or flimsy knife with little kid’s hand. Once I cut the heck out of myself doing that — pushing down, my finger slipped and ended up under the knife rather than above it. Keep your finger on the handle! You can’t balance a finger on the back of a knife blade while you’re pushing down.

The other thing I do, something that always drove my kids crazy and impressed them at the same time, is peel, and core apples in my hand. I quarter them first the correct way — cut down to the chopping board through the stem end. But then I take an apple quarter, hold it in the palm of my left hand, and cut toward me with a paring knife to core the section, then flip it over and peel it the same way in two cuts. Then a couple of quick cuts, and it’s sectioned.  It’s really fast, and I’ve never cut myself. But you have to have a sharp knife or you end up pushing so hard it’s difficult to stop when you need to. I do this with tomatoes, too — we quarter our Romas lengthwise, then scoop the seedy center out before we roast them. I can get through 20 pounds of tomatoes in about 15 minutes that way.


 I quarter the apple the right way, using the cutting board. 



 Then I slice out the core. 

My cowardly thumb is as far away as it can get.



    While I’m at it, might as well slice the darned thing.

    Yeah, I’m cutting toward my left thumb. 




      All done — in 7 seconds.  A whole apple in 12.



Chefs really like their knives. They carry around suitcases with knives, and get knife sets when they go off to culinary school the way the college students head off with laptops. One of my lasted-four-days chefs from last summer came with his own set of knives. He didn’t show up one day (off on a bender), and forgot about them. A month or so later he left me a voice mail asking me to put his knives outside that night so he could pick them up. Didn’t want his paycheck — just his knives.

There was a nice kid who worked in the kitchen last summer, a kid with a couple of years of experience working in restaurant kitchens, who had just graduated from high school and was going off to culinary school in September. He was worried about how he would do — in his knife skills class! He’d heard that students would have to cut things with some ridiculous level of accuracy to pass. Not sure whether that’s true, but it reminded me of my ex, a medical student, practicing one-handed knot tying with hemostats on our dining room chairs. Every profession has these little things, I guess.


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