It's a culinary trope that the hallmark of a trained chef is his or her knife skills. Accordingly, the first three days of culinary school were more a lesson in geometry than gastronomy. My twenty or so classmates and I honed our skills by chopping potatoes, tomatoes, onions, peppers, lettuce, leeks, mushrooms and carrots into precise, little logs and cubes. I'm starting to look a little like this.
We learned the basics from our fast-talking instructor, who clearly has some form of OCD- he interrupts himself to swipe at stray potato peelings like a hawk diving for its prey. And LOOK at those perfectly rounded balls of potato!
After our tutorial, we crowded into the kitchen to prove ourselves worthy of his praise. Although there's a lot to learn, I picked up a few tips that I hope will fool people into thinking I can cook when I return. I'll pass them on here so that you too can make matchstick french fries to great acclaim!
1. This is old news, but: sharp knives are a must.
2. The mantra: UNIFORMITY. This should be self-explanatory, but I never stopped long enough to realize that you can’t get pieces of the same size if you start with raw material that is all skee-wonky. Thus, the key to cutting uniform pieces is to start with smaller slices that are the correct length and thickness and then cut slices to your desired width (see the picture below- the smaller slices are on the bottom left with the resulting slices and dices).
3. The motion you make with your knife is a essentially an ellipse- first pushing the tip of the knife away from your body and simultaneously down into the veggie, then pulling the handle back toward you and up to complete the circuit. It’s almost balletic when done correctly. My motion right now is more like sumo wrestling.
4. To get everything the same size means a lot of wasted vegetable, which is offensive to American tastes. Take a deep breath and compost your scraps.
As we chopped, chocolate from the students baking downstairs wafted into our classroom, and my carrots and onions started to look a little...meager. Our instructor saw the baleful looks on our faces (ok, mostly my face) and told us we'll be preparing something tasty to take home tomorrow...