I lock myself in my kitchen (even though it is an open kitchen), and for two hours I get to know the characteristics and personalities of the likes of white onions, shallots, fennel bulbs, long bulk carrots, cantaloupes, and navel oranges. I chop, and chop, and chop until my back hurts and my knives are dull. My job is to teach myself, by shear will and practice, how to mince, dice, julienne, and brunoise all of these vegetables. It is time.
My goal is to figure out different approaches, like pulling through the length of my Chef's knife blade when mincing onions, rather than just pushing down on the bulb with my Santoku. Or to finally create a consistent 1/8 inch brunoise out of a carrot, and dice a melon into the same size pieces as The Owner and Chef M did this past weekend for the Escolar crudo.
I became insecure about my knife skills on the first day at The Restaurant, when I butcher a red onion unrecognizable. They are in shapes that not even a Geometry major could attempt to describe. I obviously am also using the wrong technique to cut the onion, as well, hence the abiding scar on the tip of my ring finger from a battle with a peach pit and my paring knife.
You would think after a couple of weeks I would catch on. But even this past weekend, I am mincing chives for The Sous and The Head Chef, and The Sous looks at my knife work and says, "Stage. What are you doing? Is this your first day of school"? I whine, telling him that my fingers are curled, and he retaliates by reminding me that my knuckles are not resting on my blade like he showed me that very first day, and that puts me at risk of cutting myself (which we know I do), even when my fingers are curled. I have to admit, having that security of your knuckles on the blade helps me to guide my knife where it needs to go, with both hands, not just one. I also hate to admit that it helps me with the consistency of the chop because I know exactly where the knife is going. I see that I am not going to win this battle.
He also explains to me that I have to be methodical in my cutting technique. Cutting chives, for example, is a rhythm, like the breaths and strokes of a swimmer. Each time your blade finishes swooshing through the chives you have given it, you then re-adjust your hands, so that you can cut more of those chives in that same rhythm, using that same technique, and having those same knuckles on your left hand gently resting on your blade.
The same goes for a brunoise, or a dice. You square your produce off, be it a melon or a carrot, cut that shape into planks, cut the planks into sticks (julienne), and then rotate the sticks so that you can create a fine dice (brunoise). Just as consistent as those long crawl strokes of a swimmer.
I also learn this past weekend that when you mince parsley, you pick the leaves all off of the hard stems (which I would have never done before). Then, you take a bunch of the large dark green leaves and bunch them up into a small ball in your fingers. Then you chiffonade the parsley so that it creates small, fluffy ribbons. Once you are done chiffonading all of the parsley, then you go back and run your knife over the parsley so that it turns into tiny confetti. It is much easier than just running your knife all over the cutting board trying to find the miscellaneous pieces of parsley that you didn't get the first time around. I have been chasing damn flat-leaf parsley around my freaking cutting board for the majority of my cooking life.
I also have to work on efficiency in my knife work tasks. Last weekend, I was supreming three oranges and two grapefruits for The Owner, yet, I was just working on one piece at a time. The Sous points out that he would take those five pieces of citrus, and cut each of the fruit's tops and bottoms off, all at once, then cut around each one, back to back, and then work on supreming them individually.
So, after being cooped up in my house for two hours on one of the most beautiful Summer days Seattle has given us, and knowing I could have been laying out on Lake Washington listening to the clinking of sailboat masts in the wind, and reading some of my new A-16 cookbook, I felt pleased with my attempt at anal retentive, and methodical chopping skills.
From far away, like an impressionistic Monet painting, the mise en place came together, and I could have been mistaken for Eric Ripert. But up close, there were inconsistencies which I will one day improve. I just have many, many, many more hours of homework ahead of me with those pesky vegetables, and my knives. Sharpened like a razor blade, of course.