The Happy Craft of Knifework
I began my love affair in a crowded Williams-Sonoma. The moment we touched, everything changed. Even the other customers in the store knew it: This is the start of a beautiful friendship, the man next to me said. No, I said, turning to face him. This is the start of a love story…me and this knife.
I didn’t seek the way of the knife; the way of the knife sought me. I am an easily distracted and therefore reluctant cook. I once abandoned a grilled peanut butter and sliced-strawberry sandwich. After lowering the lid of my panini press, I wandered away to check my email. And walk the dog. And take a picture of a butterfly. And play a round of Mario Kart. When I returned to the kitchen an hour later, my little sandwich looked like a perfectly square charcoal briquette.
I’ve ruined soups, steaks, fish, and batches of yogurt with my distraction. I stare, wide-eyed and full of disbelief, at friends and family who love to cook. You cook a whole meal? But don’t you get bored? I ask. Friends give me recipes, tips, and lists of equipment to make cooking easier. I try them all, like a few, am ambivalent about most. Nothing works.
My thought process as I cook:
dinner okay I’ll make stir-fry I can make chicken I guess but we eat a lot of chicken do we have shrimp I think we have shrimp so I’ll make the rice first one cup rice two cups water into the rice cooker put the skillet on the stove and turn the stove on dump the broccoli florets into the skillet and add some sauce but what’s that thing we added last time maybe it was pineapple or maybe it was pepper I’m not sure I’ll go look it up on the laptop and maybe check my email real quick while I’m here and see if that dress I wanted at H&M is back in stock maybe I can wear that next week when we go to the symphony and that Thai restaurant I love their peanut sauce hey I wonder if I can make a peanut sauce because I think we have cashews but can you make peanut sauce with cashews or does it have to be just peanuts my mom is allergic to peanuts I haven’t talked to her today I wonder if she’s okay I’ll call her while I’m thinking about it and ask her what she puts in her stir-fries oh no the stir-fry oh god I forgot the stir-fry it’s burning and black and smells awful and we’re going out to eat again and the dogs will have the rice.
Tired of offering burnt food and apologies for dinner, I checked out what solutions Williams-Sonoma could provide. I somehow ended up on their mailing list. I love lifestyle catalogs, because they believe in me, even when I don’t believe in myself. The actual shop was crowded, an employee explained, because a knife skills class was beginning in 10 minutes, and I was free to stay and learn how to chop, dice, and julienne. Plus, if I took the class, I’d get a discount on any purchase made that day. I shrugged and walked toward the cooking school.
After a round of introductions, I discovered that I was the rookie of the group, and the other students welcomed me to the class. I took a spot to the right of the instructor and carefully watched every move. I made many mistakes at first: I couldn’t make uniform pieces of strawberries; I made pulp out of tomatoes. But I persisted. During a break in the class, I walked to the knife section of the store. I picked up a butcher’s knife, but it was too big. I held a paring knife, but it was too small. Let me help you, the instructor offered. He explained how a knife should fit in your hand, how it should feel perfectly balanced, like an extension of yourself. He explained a full tang, in which the steel is forged to the very end of the handle. And then he put a seven-inch Wüsthof Gourmet santoku in my hand. It felt like a handshake with an old friend. I actually giggled in excitement, and my classmates cheered. I paid for my knife, then returned to the class.
With the love of my life in hand, I learned how to cut an onion. I sliced a yellow pepper into long strips. I discovered the difference between mince and dice. And, most importantly, I was 100% connected to every part of the process. After class, I drove home and chopped every onion in the house. The next day, I went to the store and bought potatoes, then diced the entire three-pound bag. The day after that, I drove back to Williams-Sonoma and bought two more pieces of cutlery: a Wüsthof five-inch serrated utility for cheese and tomatoes, and a delicate Wüsthof two-and-a-half-inch bird’s beak paring knife for hulling strawberries. I moved my food processor from the kitchen counter to a laundry room cabinet. It sits there, gathering dust next to the apple peeler, the garlic press, and the infomercial hand chopper I bought at Goodwill. I don’t need gadgets anymore. I have my knives.
Now, asking me to help in the kitchen means I ask you a million questions: Do you want a fine chop? Chiffonade? Mince? I caution against dull knives, and purse my lips at vague recipe directions. At dinner parties, I make my way into kitchens, pick up a knife, and start cutting. I greatly prefer prep work to small talk. Last Thanksgiving, I spent the morning chopping vegetables in my sister-in-law’s kitchen. I have rarely been happier in the immediate vicinity of a stove.
My thought process as I prepare ingredients:
we’re having soup so I need to dice this potato okay first peel off the skin in even sheets then cut it in half along the length then take one half and slice it into even strips along that length then cut across into even chunks one potato two potato three potato four.
Prep work is my yoga; my mind goes clear as I slice. The only thing that matters is the intersection of knife and food. I practice the art of creating uniform sizes of ingredients, then gathering them neatly in their own ramekin. The process quiets my mind of extraneous chatter. Cooking is still a chore, but preparation is the culinary equivalent of a brief stop to catch my breath before climbing up a mountain.
I think too much, therefore I cut.