The Tourné Knife: A Paring Knife That Turns Heads, and Why You Need It

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

My first tourné knife experience was a brutal one. A tourné knife is a paring knife with a short, curved blade. They’re also referred to as "bird’s beak" knives, but a more appropriate name might be Azazel, Inciter of Anguish. You see, the primary function of this demonic blade is to "turn" a vegetable into a two-inch-long, seven-sided football. Members of the fine-dining occult believe this shape holds the power to cook more evenly because it rotates better in a pan.

I first tournéed in culinary school, when the chef challenged us to make one perfect hepta-potato in order to get a passing grade for the day. Every student failed, potato scraps covered the floor, and I immediately condemned my tourné knife back to hell.

We met again a year later, when I staged at a restaurant that some say is the best in the world. A stage (often pronounced "stäzh") is a stint of unpaid work to see if you’ve got the chops for a culinary job—or, in my case, an unpaid internship. I was handed a tourné knife, stationed in front of a 28-pound case of fennel, and tasked with turning each petal into a one-and-a-half-inch teardrop. I managed to remain spirited and optimistic during the first six hours, but hours six through 12 were dark times indeed. When the chef came around to evaluate my work, he chucked all the fennel tears I had sacrificed my sanity for and told me to give up cooking altogether. I don’t remember the details of the scuffle that followed, but I’m sure the diners won’t ever forget the sight of me being dragged out of the restaurant by toqued thugs.

Just when I thought the knife was done haunting me, one seemed to have snuck into my cutlery drawer at home. My husband is a tourné acolyte, and he was hell-bent on converting me. At first, I couldn’t have been more resistant, and went so far as to refuse to eat anything prepped with the satanic shiv. But eventually, his persistence wore me down.

Under his tutelage, I came to view the knife not as an instrument of torture, but as a sort of miniature scythe, imbued with a divine power to handle round objects like no straight-bladed counterpart can. Daniel has argued that bird’s beak knives aren’t very useful for home cooks, but I don’t think there's a better way to peel onions and shallots: The sharp tip scores the skins, while the slim blade easily slips under the papery hulls, allowing you to undress alliums in two swift strokes. Making French onion soup just got a lot easier.

But that’s not all it’s good for. Due to its superior facility with spherical things, the curved blade can also quickly carve thick twists of citrus peel, perfect for flaming over an Old Fashioned cocktail. Because the blade is short, you can closely grip the knife with your entire hand in order to securely peel oddball items, like a ridge-y acorn squash or an especially knobbly ginger root, or delicate ones that require extra control—held properly, it’ll give you enough precision to peel slippery grapes for pickling and trim tough artichoke stems for braising. I love it for loosening the segments from a halved grapefruit if I want to feel especially pampered in the morning.

Even if peeling grapes isn’t in your repertoire, a tourné’s tip alone makes owning the knife worthwhile. It’s ideal for hulling strawberries and quickly removing the cores from Brussels sprouts. I’ve even come to use it for carving up potatoes, though I mainly prefer it for digging out stubborn eyes, not laboriously sculpting tiny footballs. I still get twitchy whenever I’m alone in a room with a tourné knife and a fennel bulb, but the many other charms of this little knife have possessed me. I reach for it over and over again every time I cook, even if I don’t have any plans to torture culinary students and interns.