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INTERVIEW: Knife Skills Illustrated


Posted by : Catherine Jheon, Tue, Sep 25 2007

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I loved the discussion sparked by What Kind of Knife Do You Use? post. So when Knife Skills Illustrated: A User's Manual by Peter Hertzmann arrived on my desk, I thought, what great timing. From knife anatomy and care, to proper techniques for cutting vegetables and meats, the book provides a comprehensive guide to that most essential kitchen tool. I spoke to Peter Hertzmann, a self-taught expert on Chinese and French cuisine and the man behind à la carte website, last week in Toronto.
CJ: How did the book come about?
PH: I was teaching a knife course and found that people wanted something to take home with them other than memories. So I started writing a manual on knife skills on my website and the traffic on my site went from 700 visitors a day to 30,000 visitors a day! Nine days after the article on knife skills went online, a literary agent from New York called to say we should turn it into a book.

CJ:  What distinguishes your book from other knife skills books out there?

PH: There are two distinctions. All the illustrations in the book are from the point of view of the person using the knife. If you look at pictures in magazines or books, it's always taken from across the table, so you end up having to turn it around in your mind. The second distinction is that I've included instructions for right- and left-handed cooks.

CJ: What is the most common bad habit when it comes to knife skills?

PH: There are two. One, people don't use their knives in a sawing motion; they just push the blade through. I've had people complain that their knives are very dull but after I teach them how to saw with it, they're like, wow my knives are so sharp.

Two, people hold their knives improperly. I'm a big proponent of the pinch grip, for most people the pinch grip works well. (NOTE:  A pinch grip is where you pinch the blade just in front of the handle with your thumb and forefinger, wrapping your other three fingers around the handle.) The worst grip I've seen is when people hold the knife with their index finger resting on top of the blade.

CJ: What is the biggest misconception when it comes to knives?
PH: One, that expensive knives are always better than less expensive knives. You can get a perfectly decent Victorinox Forschner knife for $35. My chef's knife collection (pictured here) ranges from a $60 Icel to a $200 Shun knife. Two, that they need to buy knives in sets, which is not the case. And three, that you need lots of knives.

The only two must-have knives are a good chef's knife and a good pairing knife. Beyond that you may want to consider a slicer or carving knife and a bread knife (with a serrated edge). Don't spend a lot of money on a bread knife because serrated edges can't easily be sharpened. I've heard of people spending $60 on a bread knife, but it's not worth it.

CJ: What is the proper way to care for a knife?
PH: Store your knives in a way that protects the blade; they shouldn't go into the drawer unsheathed. I happen to like plastic sleeves on mine because it makes them portable.

Use a wooden or plastic cutting board; stay away from glass, marble, metal or even bamboo cutting boards because they can dull the blade. If you protect the blade, a good knife should last a life time.

CJ: How often should we sharpen our knives?
PH: When they're dull. That's the short answer. When it comes to sharpening knives, keep in mind the difference between steeling and sharpening.

There are two types of dullness. Knives can feel dull when the burr on the edge of the blade rolls over; this can be corrected by using a steel. You steel your knife by running the blade against the steel a couple times on each side. It doesn't matter how much you spend on your steel or how much you steel your knife, because you're not taking any metal off.

When you get to the point when steeling isn't making much difference you need to sharpen your knife. You can either do it yourself or get it professionally sharpened. Keep in mind that whatever device you use to sharpen your blade, you'll end up regrinding the blade depending on the angle of the sharpener. In many cases you're better of sharpening the knife yourself. There are lots of sharpening devices that are good but that takes a bit of research. The other way is to go to your favourite restaurant and ask the chef for the name of his knife sharpener.

CJ: What are some things to keep in mind when shopping for knives?
PH: The most important thing to consider is how it feels in your hand. I suggest bringing along a carrot or even better, a zucchini to chop. I've brought my own zucchini when knife shopping.

CJ: What was your worst knife accident?
PH: Cutting an onion when I was 15. I still have the scar on my thumb!

I have five hard-cover copies of Knife Skills Illustrated: A User's Manual (courtesy of Penguin Canada) to giveaway. Email me (viaContact Us form) why you'd like to receive this book with the subject line "Knife Skills" I'll pick five names at random next Tuesday.

The Giveaway is closed. Congratulations to Mark L., Joy D. Graham Y and William M. and Richard H.

Posted: Tue, Sep 25 2007 by Catherine Jheon
Filed under: Interviews, Giveaways

Get to know:Catherine Jheon

Hi food lovers, I'm the managing editor of foodnetwork.ca. I've been writing and working in the food world for almost a decade! I'm always ready to explore new tastes and ideas so drop me a line with anything food related to share.

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