Posts in Musings
one dull knife

“Pierre has a knife. Every year he replaces the blade; every other year he replaces the handle. What, then, is Pierre’s knife?” 

Jean-Paul Sartre

The culinary world can be divided into two kinds of cooks, says writer John Thorne in Pot on the Fire: those who deem a pot the tool most indispensable, and those who deem this the knife. I am indeed amongst latter, as evidenced by the two-quart copper pot whose confines I’ve endured and allowed to stretch to the lengths of even bucatini noodles. Hand me someone else’s knife, however, and I am lost. The usually blunt object, often without its familiar curvature, feels clumsy and foreign in my hand. But, on occasion, mostly when I’m at home alone, I confess: I enjoy the provincial aptitudes of a dull, straight blade.

It is true that the most virtuous of cooks keep their knives sharp, honing with great pride and vigor on their steels until blades bend back into submission. Last week at the restaurant, I learned how to use a Dexter Russell Tri-Stone Sharpener with Lubricating Oil. It’s a boxy contraption as clunky as its name. One of the other line cooks demonstrated by caressing the blade in smooth angles over the three gradients of its sandpaper, finishing each turn with a press of the thumb into the blade to test for sharpness. Historically, my care has consisted of the odd run against a honing steel and two bi-annual professional sharpenings, so I was impressed by his nurturing. He could sense when the blade it was equally matched in sharpness on both sides, a keen eye that could only come from cultivating a relationship over time with an object that’s important to you; a mutual caring and respect for both tool & toiler.

I am a professional now, or at least I’m trying, so I’ve begun to make steel a part of my morning ritual. Aside from the two knives I use at the restaurant, I have a few I like to keep sharp at home: my chefs knife, an Italian hand-forged stainless 9-inch that is a bit long for my grip, but beautiful enough to ignore this detail; a matching bread & paring knife, both of which I use less than I’d like, but make child’s play of slicing crusty bread and underripe fruit; and a filleting knife, it’s pronunciation arguable, but flexible blade, indispensable. Yet despite these four workhorses, it’s a short, 3-inch carbon steel paring knife, with a blade tarnished beyond recognition, that I find myself reaching for most often.

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The benefits of a sharp knife are plainly understood, and thus touted by amateurs and professionals alike: wounds are more likely avoided, or at least, less raggedy. But just as recipes are guidelines, so are the dictates of the culinary elite: I believe it is important for every cook to have one dull knife in their kit; a tool made in the image of a knife for which you grab when you can’t be bothered with the pretensions of the ideal. A knife for when the mere ability to incise is good enough; when uniformity isn’t necessary and jagged edges are forgivable. When its one and only responsibility is the single incision needed to tear fruit from flesh; like a plum from it’s pit. For when your culinary ambitions fall short of perfection, and you really just need to get the job done.

A dull blade is a humble blade, gentle on the fingertips and thus perfectly suited for a type of rustic slicing I refer to as Nonna-style; one which requires neither sharpness nor cutting boards, but a practitioner graceful and seasoned enough to cut mid-air. I grew up watching my mother prepare salads this way. When other cutting boards were occupied–onion skins littering some, juices from meat pooling on others–she would reach for a small paring knife and begin to perform the economical ritual of slicing directly into the bowl. Leaf lettuce, of the Red Oak or Lolla Rossa variety, already washed and spun, peered slightly over the bowl’s edge while bell pepper, carrot, english cucumber, and other garden-variety staples fell from her palms in rough dices. I can still picture her thumbs afterwards, pink from rinsing off vegetables in icy cold water and slightly calloused from the nightly ritual of suppertime salad.

I often wonder if this technique is taboo enough to get me into trouble in the professional kitchen. But slice hundreds of miniature strawberries any other way and you to will stand behind the dull blade as a virtuous thing in its own right. It is a butter knife when things require spreading, and a paring knife when things require cutting. It’s there when I need it to nip off the odd bit of rind from a piece of cheese, but also capable of liberating an apple from it’s core with gusto. I wouldn’t dare grab it to dice onions or garlic; vegetables whose constitution require a more traditional technique, but for the soft or ambiguously shaped; a fig, the odd chunk of cheese, it will do just fine. And, when I’m ready to eat, it’s already a sullied, obvious choice for cutlery. My one dull knife is also the only carbon steel I own. It’s a small one made of boxwood from Spain that I’ve let tarnish into a beautiful, more storied patina, the same way I’ve let it dull into a gentler, more forgiving version of itself.

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ineffectually slow

Apparently I lack a sense of urgency when shucking peas and cleaning butter lettuce. This, among other kitchen tasks I've discovered I do ineffectually slow. The proper way to clean butter lettuce, if you find yourself with more than twenty heads to manage at once, is to cut off the roots, cut through the core to unfurl the leaves, then use your pastry brush to remove the soil from the base before unfolding it open like a paper snowflake. Be careful not to put your nearly-clean head of butter lettuce onto a less-than-clean cutting board or the whole point is moot.

Our sous chef says to me, "try this pace!" as if this is something alterable by mere suggestion, like the appropriate size to dice a vegetable. I’ve never been proposed a "pace" other than as a speed limit while driving, but if my pulse is not quickening I've learned I'm moving too slowly. Prep projects should be met with the same urgency as the most pressing of tasks, or as if it were your supreme mission on earth to clean butter lettuce heads in order prevent mankind’s demise. Consider using a high-tempo playlist as your metronome.

I do count myself lucky to have found the only restaurant job in the city that doesn’t ask for my evenings, weekends, or sanity. Being a line cook has it’s appeal. Almost a bit addicting, like playing a video game and trying to beat your high score. Your adrenaline is pumping constantly, but then struggle to acclimatize to the speed of civil society once the high wears off. I’ve heard this described as "high grade fun." When you leave, your retrospect is positive, but other less positive observations still weigh on me: the amount of waste; food, plastic, or otherwise. The exasperating physicality, intense heat, and long hours. Griddle, Pasta, and Roast stations are for masochists. Garde Manger, the cold appetizers and salad line where I’m stationed, is at least humanely chilled.

I am told it gets easier, but for now it all seems rather overwhelming.

growth and death

I think most writers do not enjoy writing. Or, rather: most find it does not come without force or effort; a willful decision to sit, reflect, and think in full stories.

Yesterday I willed myself to write. It had to be somewhere other than home, like a coffee shop or a park; I had to be a touch uncomfortable if I wanted to create anything, even if discomfort only meant missing the cozy morning light of my apartment and the routine that followed.

But discomfort became more than a backless chair and a public space. That morning, I learned of the suicide of food writer and journalist, Anthony Bourdain, whose creative contributions extend far beyond his work as a chef.

Bourdain was a different breed of journalist. For him, food was simply the medium. Through it he explored the structures we fail to notice that eventually become our tastes. I appreciated his wit; a sardonic sense of humor that—whether or not you were able to see it—made you feel like you were in on the joke. It was irreverence that allowed him to explore the full extent of humanity: the foreign, the grotesque, the discarded. He was, as Christiane Amanpour put it, deeply, deeply human.  Reading Kitchen Confidential pushed me to go forth with food as a profession, not just a passion. He was—and will continue to be—my “if you could share a meal with anyone“ person.

A few years ago, I had to avoid watching Bourdain. It was too painful. I knew I was meant to be traveling and cooking and eating and sharing those stories. The fact that I was doing anything but felt like wasted potential. I don't know what triggered him to call it in. I think for people with Bourdain's talent, life and personal success becomes too much to bear.

Where one writer would end, another mustered up the courage to begin. And so it goes.

It was raining that morning, naturally compounding the sadness. I ordered toast. It came dry, but the jam was smeared reasonably thickly and the strawberry flavor gave me an impression of the season that the weather could not. My keyboard was growing sticky. I packed up my things and walked home, riding a break in the rain, with not a drop left in my coffee cup and a few crumbs left on the plate.

We find all sorts of ways to fill space; stomach, heart, or otherwise.