Sharp tips revealed in knife class

Teacher's a cutup in N.Y. school

November 26, 2003|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A few weekends ago, I committed fraud in my kitchen.

I blame it on a house guest, my dear friend Harold, a know-it-all who truly does know it all. Harold can just as easily recommend a chic hotel in Bombay - ("You know it's called Mumbai over there, don't you?") - as he can whip up a frittata from food I didn't know I had in my refrigerator.

Harold is sweetly generous with his wisdom - otherwise, I might start to hate him. Even so, it's always a bit intimidating when he visits.

Anyway, I returned from a quick errand that Saturday morning, whereupon Harold surprised me with the aforementioned frittata, and then, offered some undeserved praise. "You are to be congratulated," he said. "Your knives are all sharp! Do you know how many kitchens I end up cooking in where the knives are so dull, they couldn't cut gym class?" I mutely accepted his compliment, and therein lay my fraud. You see, I didn't tell Harold that my knives were sharp because I rarely use them.

Oh, I cook all right. I chop. I dice. I slice. Fact is, though, for nearly all such chores, I rely on a serrated behemoth that could probably saw through cinder block. Serrated knives never go dull, I'd discovered. Sure it made a hash of some things (like onions, flank steak or ... ), but I muddle through.

When I related this story to Cindy Wolf, chef/owner of Charleston and Petit Louis, she let out a commiserating laugh. "No one should be intimidated, especially by things they never had a chance to learn," she said. "I firmly believe there should be a chef instructor in 12th grade, and that cooking class should be mandatory for everyone! There are some skills you just can't learn from reading a recipe."

"I'd need to show you how to hold a knife," she continued. "Because the harder you work to use a knife, the easier it is to chop your finger off."

Lesson in knife skills

I smiled, thinking this might actually be an offer for a tutorial - just Wolf, me and a pile of carrots, fresh for the slaughter. But no such offer was forthcoming. I guess she's busy, what with running two of Baltimore's most popular restaurants.

So, I signed up for a lesson with Norman Weinstein, a nationally recognized knife skills instructor who's taught since 1995 at the Institute of Culinary Education (formerly known as Peter Kump's New York Cooking School). Weinstein, 65, a Brooklyn native who absolutely sounds like one, is a cheerfully frenetic man whose comic patter is as well-honed as the blades on his beloved Wusthof cutlery.

"First of all, there's one thing you need to know about me," he began his class by saying. Then he shot out both arms to the side, his fingers shaped into the double V pose of victory infamously assumed by Richard Nixon. Weinstein shook his head to simulate the former president's jowly face. "I'm not a cook!"

This tortured, not to mention dated, pun on Nixon's denial of wrongdoing during the Watergate scandal didn't get much response from the four men and eight women in attendance. Weinstein's claim also wasn't, I subsequently learned, exactly true. He is a crook ... uh, cook ... with nearly 30 years of experience in Asian cuisine. In fact, it was his having to master the delicate preparation of vegetables, seafood and meat for Japanese and Chinese recipes that propelled him into a second career in teaching knife skills.

What he meant by his joke was that he was not one of those cooks who expect you to already know everything. Weinstein assumes complete ignorance on the part of his students, but promises that after three hours their knife skills will be, well, sharpened.

"There's lots of confusion out there about which knives do what," he said. "People are given a set of knives for a wedding present, and God knows what happens to them. I want to take all the anxiety out of dealing with knives. This is really a stress-reduction class."

Trying to get some sense of what he was working with, though, Weinstein wondered aloud what sort of knives people had in their kitchens.

One woman said she had Calphalon.

Weinstein's face blanched. "We'll talk about that later," he replied, ominously.

Another hapless student had brought along some knives from home, and gamely held them up, as if this were show and tell. When Weinstein spotted a knife from Cutco, the brand sold door-to-door, he regarded it with disgust, as if it were a used diaper.

"You're trying to get me mad, aren't you?" he asked, with mock fury. "Why, why, would you buy such a knife? So, some kid's trying to work his way through college? Good for him. Bad for you."

He then tried to balance this knife's center like a seesaw on his extended fingertip, but it consistently fell off. This lead him to observe that good knives are engineered so that the weight of the blade is equal to that of the handle. He then swiftly deconstructed Cutco's main sales claim. "They tell you if the knife ever gets dull, you can return it to them for sharpening. What? You're supposed to go out to dinner every night until it's returned?"

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