Brendan McDermott grasps his intimidating chef’s knife and, wielding it with the grace of Roger Federer slicing a backhand, feathers a celery stalk into a hundred wafer thin slivers.
“You can cut prep time in half by knowing how the knife works,” McDermott, a professional chef, informs his students at the start of his three-hour knife skills class at New York City’s Institute for Culinary Education. (His course is also available at Bluprint online.) “Speed and accuracy come from using the back half of the knife,” McDermott explains. That allows you to exercise maximum control and leverage. Oh, and if you’re trying to cut through something that’s resisting, don’t tempt fate. Pull back and try again.
Proper technique in clutching the knife is paramount. It may not be the way your mother taught you, but you place the index finger and thumb on opposite sides of the blade for maximum control. Then curl your other three fingers loosely around the handle.
The hand that anchors the food may undergo the steepest learning curve. To keep the target in the path of the blade without your fingers straying near it, you use a claw grip. The ends of the middle three are curled inward with the pinkie and thumb tucked under the palm. That way the fingertips are safe from the cutting edge and the knuckles act as a fender against the knife’s broad side.
The term “chopped onion” is something of a misnomer. Professional chefs actually slice forward into the bulb and then rock the blade back. Chopping not only hacks up the onion, but releases more of the moisture that makes your eyes tear up. Leaving the root ends on also helps in that regard.
High-quality knives, while pricy, are a good idea, but Chef McDermott says you needn’t buy a wooden block set with steak knives and kitchen shears. A chef’s knife, a paring knife and one with a serrated edge will meet most challenges. A good knife store, like the New York City chefs’ destination, Korin, can also adapt a right-handed blade for a left-handed person.
But no matter the quality, a knife must have an edge. A honing rod will keep it sharp, but once it is dull it needs a whetstone to revive it. Better yet, have it sharpened professionally. After all you’re cutting celery, not fingers.