Monday, May 10, 2010

The Perfect Cut

There is such a thing as knife wizardry. I've seen it firsthand. And if you ever want to be inspired to cook better, watching a master chef in action in person will definitely do it.

This past week, Dean Jacques Pepin showed students how to chop, mince, dice, and whip with the best of them. It sounds like basics, I know. And you may wonder how this differs from all the basic knife skills that get drilled into culinary students during level 1. But although I knew it all before, I walked away with an even greater appreciation of what can be done with just a knife and the importance of practicing to perfection.

The short and simple list of what I learned from Jacques Pepin:

Avoid waste. A clever chef can use almost every part of the produce he/she buys. Note to self: remember to plan carefully.

As if this hasn't been said enough: Keep your knives sharp! Pepin showed us how to keep our knives up to par, emphasizing the importance of doing it the right way so as to not ruin the edge.

Although he was doing nothing more than demonstrating skills—peeling this, chopping that—he carefully plated his minced parsley, tomato roses, artichoke leaves, and trussed chicken with thoughtfulness. Everything remained tidy and all those bits and pieces looked presentable. After he finished whisking a mayonnaise, he used his knife to smooth and make a ridged pattern across the surface. Do everything as if you mean it.

The answer is always, "Yes, chef." A proponent of creativity, Pepin still drilled us in the way of the kitchen. Follow your chef. The time to express your own style is when you are the boss. It's easy to forget the value of humility and compliance. Working the line is not the time to show off what you think is "a better way."

When Pepin deftly made roses out of tomatoes and carved fish out of mushrooms, he knew these aren't the types of things we will be making. But by doing some of these flourishes, he emphasized what can be done when you have mastered your knife skills. Completely deboning a whole chicken, stuffing, and tying it up in no more than a few minutes is useful. And if you can do one, you most certainly can do the other. You've got to own your knives, and practice, practice, practice.

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