Monday, February 26, 2007

Three Knives

Back in 1991 or so, when I first started getting serious about learning to cook, I bought a set of Henckels knives. A ten-inch slicer, an eight-inch chef, and a three-inch parer. I never used the slicer enough even to have to steel it, and I replaced the parer soon afterwards with a cute little one-and-a-quarter-inch one. If I'd known then what I know now, I would have spent what the set cost on one really good chef's knife. But the one that came with the set is pretty good, and it has served me well. I'd say I've had it in my hand for just about everything I've cooked for the last fifteen years, up till a month or so ago.

At which time I bought an eight-inch Global. Oh my ears and whiskers, what a knife. It's got this really slender bevel, which means it can attain unearthly levels of sharpness. It's actually a little heavier than the Henckels, but it's so perfectly balanced that it feels light as a feather in my hand. With it, I can reduce a bunch of parsley to a little heap of green dust in seconds or scream through a pound of onions before I've had time to cry. It's a serious machine for making single things into multiple things.

The day after I bought it, I had a little Ruhlmanesque epiphany: I'd laid it on my cutting board, and as I was reaching across to grab something, my thumb met the edge of the blade. The knife didn't move. The blade just slid smoothly into my thumb. A lesson.

Then last weekend, Sara gave me that really cool Chinese kitchen knife on the right in the picture up there. And I've got to say I love it. I've only used it a few times so far, but it's fun! Split eggplants and butternut squashes and cantelopes with a single stroke. Loosen the skins on a few garlic cloves by bashing the bejeezus out of them with the flat of the blade or the butt end of the handle, whack the garlic up into a fine mince, scoop it up on that nice broad blade, and dump it in the pot, all in the time it takes to sing "Because I Would Not Stop for Death" to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas."

Which one do I like better? The one that's in my hand. One's a Maserati, the other's a Jeep. I do think if I had the Chinese knife first, I probably wouldn't have bought the Global. But I'm glad I've got it. We'll see which one I end up bonding with. The Henckels will stay on in an emeritus position; it's been too constant a companion to simply throw in a drawer and forget.


An Briosca Mor said...

I haven't taken the knife skills class at L'Academie yet, although I probably should because my own knife skills are not entirely up to snuff. But I have had a fair amount of exposure to knives in the various classes that I've taken or assisted there. At L'Academie, students in the recreational classes get at most two knives to use in class. (Professional students there have to buy their own knives. Recreational students can bring their own knives if they want, and some do. One Sunday I was taking a class and would be heading right over to the session afterwards, so I brought the flute in with me rather than leave it in the car. Some folks saw the leather roll and thought I'd brought my own knives.) Anyway, in every class requiring chopping, you're issued a ten-inch chef's knife. If there are chickens to be deboned or fish to be filleted, then you get a flexible boning knife as well to use for that. These are really the only two knives one needs in the kitchen, at least according to L'Academie. (And I would agree. I pretty much only use my chef's knife at home, and am using my lack of a boning knife as my excuse for not buying and butchering my own whole chickens.)

The stock chef's knives at L'Academie are notoriously dull. They may have been sharp once, but they've never been sharpened since. They can't cut butter, but every once in a while I've seen some particularly inept student cut themself with one. I don't know how they do it, really. I guess some people are just accident prone. Most of the instructors use their own personal knives, but there are a few who make a point of using the student knives because they're tired of students saying Yeah sure, I could cut it right if only I had the good knife like you're using! Even with the dull student knives, they are able to produce perfect brunoise or julienne in a flash, or use the big chef's knife to peel just the thin paper skin off an onion, leaving the rest intact. Talk about knife skills!

Rob said...

Shudder. A dull knife can slip and cut you really easily. That's a liability L'Academie should avoid. Or maybe learning to sharpen is the first lesson? When I was nineteen, I cut my left index finger literally to the bone with a dull paring knife. My knives stay as sharp as I can get them now.

I'd like to take that knife skills class too -- I think I do pretty well for being self-taught, but there's a limit to how far that will take you.

An Briosca Mor said...

But you don't understand. These knives are so dull that they can barely cut food, much less human flesh. They are butter knives, nay even duller than that. I don't know how anyone could cut themself with one of them, even if they tried. Some people are truly klutzes. If L'Academie issued sharp knives, these few folks would be leaving body parts and buckets of blood on the counter.

If you ever do take the knife skills class, you should definitely bring your own knife. I recommend you take the Chinese one, for the buzz factor if nothing else.