Mastering Knife Skills: Can a Book Make the Cut?

The boy I was seeing last year, a cook, passed on his knives to me before I started my first gig in a restaurant kitchen. They were his set from culinary school--sturdy and unfancy in their utilitarian black case.

His nonchalance gave way to unfamiliar gravity as he ceremoniously bestowed them upon me. He demonstrated how to sharpen them, first with stone and then with steel, and looked concerned when I was catching on slowly, if at all. Knives are serious business—any cook knows that.

On my first day in the kitchen, the cooks asked to see my knives. "They're hand-me-downs from a friend," I explained. But the chefs proved far more interested in showing off their own. They pulled out chef's knives, paring knives, and boning knives, and launched into raucous discussion about Western versus Japanese knives, and, of course, about whose knives were the crème de la crème.

They exhibited enormous patience in teaching me how to use my borrowed knives. I learned fast how to chiffonade basil into elegant ribbons, but my fine dice was never quite fine enough. I broke down duck after duck into its duck parts, but my breasts were unfailingly raggedy, skin flopping awkwardly off the flesh.

Mastering Knife Skills by Norman Weinstein attempts to teach the home cook what Weinstein teaches budding professionals at the Institute of Culinary Education: how to deftly yield the primary tool of the kitchen. The book includes copious close-up photos and an accompanying DVD.

Slate writer Sara Dickerman spent eight years as a professional cook—her husband Andrew did not. She asked, "Can a book teach my husband to dice onions, slice bagels, and core strawberries?" She thought Weinstein's book might get him "dicing the occasional onion and cutting bagels in a way that doesn't threaten his brachial artery."

Sara videotaped Andrew before and after he had watched and read Weinstein on four basic knife operations: slicing a bagel, carving a roast chicken, coring strawberries, and dicing onions. The verdict: definite improvement. Still, Sara thinks practice is the ultimate key to being knife savvy:

I also couldn't help but think that in the end, Andrew would need to set aside Weinstein's book and just practice. Somewhere around the 100th minced clove of garlic, he'll get the essence of the action. By the 1,000th, he'll stop thinking about what he's doing.

I think Sara is right. After spending a few weeks segmenting oranges every afternoon, the action only took me a tiny fraction of my original, belabored time.

Watching an expert cook's knife fly at lightning speed is a little like watching magic. "Just as no figure skater ever won a gold medal solely for executing perfect figure eights, no one will become a great chef simply on the elegance of his brunoise," Sara points out. But without knife adequacy, "food cooks unevenly, expensive meat and fish turn raggedy, and lots of time and ingredients are wasted."

How did you learn to employ a knife? Would you buy a book to help make your cuts swifter and sleeker?