Memories and Musings

My Kitchen Meditations: “On Knives”

On Knives

My Kitchen Meditations

On Knives

I went to bed after a long day of cutting.

I thought back on the previous 24 hours as I hulled and then evenly sliced Florida strawberries in the ascending morning light using a Japanese knife its creator might have envisioned for other tasks. My knives are an odd assortment gathered from over 40 years of cutting to make a living…and, to make me happy. I don’t have a single brand. They are of various ages and temperaments … like my friends. Some are in need of the stone. I speak of my knives.

My day included a morning of chopping mirepoix for chicken stock. I severed thighs from legs and meat cleaver hacked a tray of necks before setting the butchered chickens in cool water to simmer for the proscribed number of drifting hours.

Then I worked on eggplant which required incisions into its ovoid shape, before I applied a savory, umami-laden kind of miso barbeque sauce to seethe and soak into the interior fleshy regions that beckon under that eggplant’s thin, shiny skin. I invade to create flavor.

A complex ‘Greek Salad’was on our docket as we worked near daily on the next cookbook we will publish. We worked in our home kitchen where everything is cut by a team of two. This mighty salad, born in Tarpon Springs but now in my hands involved the coring and serration of tomatoes, the mincing of garlic, a kitchen mandoline’s precisely calibrated razor’s edge applied to radishes, a chiffonade of various greens, the minuscule work of filleting anchovies, matchstick cutting beets, a brunoise of cucumbers and so forth. We made notes and we cut.

When I was first taught how to work with a knife it was by a very large sized chef from Philadelphia. His first name was Eddie. I was a young cook in Illinois and not sure I was going to handle the life within a kitchen’s walls. But I was there and if I was going to be of much use to the men and women who toiled around me, they knew I’d have to learn. Eddie (we all called him “Bigfateddie” … like it was all one word) was the only guy on the line I could not understand when he spoke to me. I had better luck understanding the Korean fish cutter. A word from ‘Bigfateddie’ here and there I made out. But that was it. Just enough to keep me trying to follow his trail … but that trail broke off under the food he was pushing into his face. His voice was very high, a Jerry Lewis–like high. His head was small and seemed to float above his towering Macys-Day-parade-float-sized body like a helium balloon bobbing around on a stick. He wore Buddy Holly black-framed glasses and wrapped his apron around his massive middle like a sheet. The apron strings were forever coming undone and he was forever retying them … but he never seemed to notice it. It was his one-man dance, his hokey-pokey. ‘Bigfateddie’was the chef who taught me how to use a French knife. Ill always be grateful to him for that. He did this by having me slice boxes upon boxes of mushrooms. He taught through gesture and pantomime due to that crazy shorthand language only he spoke.

When I finally made the commitment that I was accepting the ‘life of a chef’ one of the most outward signs was the purchase of my first true ‘chef’s knife’. The decision was not easy when it came to affording it. I was on a line cook’s pay and living in Key West. Only the heat is cheap in Key West. Yet my friends on that hot kitchen line owned their own and it was a true mark of meaning business when you wielded one with your initials carved into the handle or even the blade. My first, like many, was a Henckels brand. It was long before the broader spectrum of knives made both overseas and hand-crafted here nowadays. Almost without argument Henckels were the standard bearer then. I might have been ashamed (had I known any better), but I wrapped my prized chef’s knife only in double-bound kitchen side towel with butcher’s string securing the toweling … and took it home in the basket of my aging bicycle from the Pier House each night and brought it back in the same way each morning. I’d moved beyond boxes of mushroom slicing by then. Since I could not afford a full collection of knives yet … I learned to do almost every task with that one knife. One day, somehow … it fell on the stone tile flooring where one of the kitchen staff had taken it. It was far from my post at the grill. When I discovered it I saw that the entire tip broke off a full inch below the point. Ruined! It may as well have been a piece of my heart that broke with it. Hardened line chefs gathered around me and softly swore at my luck. Had I savagely burned my hand I would have earned less compassion. One was carelessness. The other seemed a kind of treason. By the next day of work still no one had confessed. It would have meant their complete ostracism by the rest of the team since the confession would have come to late.

A new day is in front of me again. The ancient lessons comfort me. ‘BigFatEddie’ also taught me how to ‘shake hands’ with a knife. Those two words I understood from him. He was teaching me how to hold a knife. I have rarely spent a day without a knife in my hands since that instructional time in a kitchen in a basement in Illinois a long, long time ago.

Time cuts too.

Make it a clean one if you can.

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©2018 Norman Van Aken

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