Kitchen Apprentice: Tools of the Trade
Editor's note: Each week "Chris P. Beycon" shares tales from behind the kitchen door, where she works as an apprentice at a popular restaurant. Read her column here each Thursday! —The Mgmt.
At home, chopsticks are my Kunz spoon. I can pick up anything from tofu to steak, beat eggs, flip pieces of fish more delicately than with a spatula, turn strips of bacon more quickly than with tongs. When I went away for college, I brought several pairs with me, certain I wouldn't be able to find anything like them—unvarnished and textured—available in Central New York. I didn't do much cooking my first two years except for the rice and grits I made out of my (contraband) mini rice cooker, but the chopsticks were still a comfort to have.
At The Restaurant, my three inch paring knife is one of my best friends, along with my notebook and sharpie. With my paring knife, I peel potatoes, cut tape, trim sheets of pasta dough, halve artichokes, open tins of olive oil and occasionally nick myself.
Considering how I didn't know how to hold a knife properly when I first plunged into BOH work, I'm sure nobody will be surprised when I say I had no idea how to take care of knives either. I bought knife covers only after I noticed that the tip of my very sharp chef's knife had slipped through several layers of my knife roll. After months of using the same two knives at The Restaurant, it occurred to me that they might be in want of sharpening.
I'd watched line cooks sharpen their knives on the whetstones soaking in containers around the kitchen. Whenever I asked someone how they knew when a knife was ready, I seemed to receive the same answer: "You just feel it." Maybe. If I knew what "it" was supposed to feel like.
I was reluctant to attempt eking out what that might be on my own, at the expense of my knives. One of the line cooks recommended that if nobody had any downtime to show me, I could take my knives to Korin. I had mixed feelings about that: all the practical knowledge I needed was right there in the kitchen, ripe for harvesting. But in the end, I couldn't find a good time in between production and service to ask for help, and I really didn't feel like ruining my precious knives on my first try at sharpening them.
And so to Korin I went. I dropped in on a Saturday and spent a happy half and hour ogling knives that looked better suited for feudal-era combat than butchering tuna while the sharpening sensei examined my knives. The sales associate approached me before the sharpening commenced.
"Did you know that both your knives are bent in one direction?"
What the hell?! How did I even do that? It was like bringing a car to a mechanic for an oil change, only to be informed gingerly that the transmission needed to be replaced.
"It's ok, we can fix that. Very easy."
The sharpening master clicked around the store in his clogs and samue. I wanted to follow my knives into the OR but I had to pay for the services ($30...oh my heart) and didn't get to see the sensei at work. After a couple of passes on an enormous grinding stone, he disappeared downstairs to put the finishing touches on the blades. He re-emerged with my knives in one hand and a wad of newspaper in the other. Holding a single sheet in between his index finger and thumb, he swiped through the paper on a bias. Both blades sliced through the newspaper with only the slightest shhppp.
A sage nod. They were ready.
I'll say. Jesus.
For the record, learning how to sharpen a knife properly is on my long list of culinary to-do's, right behind sprouting some self-confidence and mastering basic techniques for cooking eggs. So it might be a while, but I'm sure I'll get there eventually. In the meantime, I will be sure to review Kenji's tips and attend a couple of Korin's free knife-sharpening demos before I set blade to stone myself.
Which tools in your kitchen/knife rolls do you hold dear?