The Cutting Edge

Step one in learning to cook: Master the blade.

October 2009

When I was a kid, the kitchen belonged to my mother, a whiz who could turn any combination of ingredients and a can of soup into a hearty feast to feed her four hungry sons and all their friends. Outside of occasionally peeling potatoes or shucking corn, I only entered the kitchen to find food. Or maybe make a sandwich.

For years that's how things went. But by my early 20s, I had grown tired of the stereotypical postcollege bachelor diet: Cup-a-Soup, frozen pizza, and Thai take-out. Cooking seemed simple enough: Find a recipe, shop for the ingredients, follow the instructions. It'd be like assembling a piece of furniture—how hard could it be?

Pretty damn hard, actually. I lacked most basic ingredients. I didn't have key utensils: graters, measuring cups, good knives. I couldn't seem to time things right, so one part of dinner was inevitably cold by the time I pulled everything else from the oven. And I had an utter lack of imagination: Now that I wanted to cook, what should I make?

Practice, trips to the grocery store and Target's kitchen aisle, and the purchase of a few cookbooks (Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything became my bible) were easy fixes. Suddenly I was a burgeoning cook, but I was still held back by my rudimentary knife skills.

And so I found myself, along with a dozen other novices, gathered around the counters at the Seasoned Chef Cooking School. Efficiency, chef-instructor Dan Witherspoon told us, is the key to cooking, and learning to use a knife is the very first step. We each picked a knife—the hefty eight-inch chef's knife felt good in my hand—and tried to imitate Witherspoon's techniques as he took us through the preparation of a cutting-intensive meal: Tuscan minestrone soup, honey-roasted sweet potatoes, and chicken fajitas with pico de gallo.

It turns out that I'd been holding knives incorrectly for my entire life, clutching them like I was prepping to stab somebody instead of breaking down a chicken. Witherspoon went around the class and adjusted our grips, showing us how to pinch the blade as we cut through onions, carrots, parsnips, squash, and herbs. This fundamental shift felt awkward, but it was also a revelation—it was like going from hunt-and-peck typing to learning to use all 10 fingers. The class julienned, diced, and chopped, reducing pounds of vegetables and chicken to towering piles of uniform bits. By the time we sat down to eat our prepared meal, I couldn't wait to cook more.

Back at home, I surveyed my knives—dull, dull, dull. I sharpened them and got to work. Within a couple of days, I made the minestrone soup again, and a few days later I re-created the fajitas. I moved on, jumping to steak salads and salsas and fish tacos and kebabs; the more cutting needed, the better. That was nearly a year ago, and with each passing week my technique becomes more refined. I'm starting to pick up speed. Instead of a nightly struggle, cooking has become enjoyable, relaxing even.

I'm also eating better, healthier food. Over the summer I planted a garden with tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and herbs to cook with. And I just got a package in the mail: a gorgeous, gleaming chef's knife for my birthday. Thanks Mom.