The secret to a smooth restaurant service is perfect mise en place.
With each ingredient prepped properly and literally “in its place,” chefs have everything they need on hand to prepare a dish as soon as it’s ordered. For the Quickfire Challenge in this week’s episode of Top Chef Canada: All-Stars, chefs’ prep skills were put to the test through a series of tasks that had them filleting fish, finely dicing shallots and shucking oysters — all to the exacting standards of head judge Chef Mark McEwan.
“Every great dish demands accurate preparation,” he says before the challenge is launched. While those cooking at home aren’t under a clock or McEwan’s watchful eye, there’s no doubt making a meal is faster and easier when all the ingredients are ready to go. Knowing how to properly slice and dice underpins all that prep; uniform cuts guarantee even cooking and also makes it all look like you’re a professional.
Here are five knife skills essential to perfect mise en place:
Julienne simply means to cut food (usually vegetables) into long, thin strips, some 1-2 mm square and 4-5 cm long. This cut is also sometimes known as alumette, which refers to their matchstick shape. Squaring off the edges of round vegetables like carrots helps keep the julienne precise, and you can pop those trimmings into stock or soups. Once squared, simply slice the food into slabs and then again into strips.
The big brother to julienne, batonnet uses the same technique of cutting food into strips, but to a more robust size. Food cut into batonnet (literally batons) is about twice the size of a julienne, with the sticks some 6 mm square and 6 cm long. Just like for julienne, it’s best to start by squaring off the vegetable, then slicing into slabs and then into batons.
Dicing vegetables is a snap once you’ve learned the basics of batonnet. There are a few different sizes of dicing, which are essentially cubes of food. Depending on the recipe, it may call for a large dice (20 mm cubed), medium dice (13 mm) or small (6mm cubed), which is the size of dice you will get when starting with the batonnet cut above. The smallest type of diced vegetable, the brunoise, gets a category of its own (see below).
To go from a batonnet to a dice, simply take the item that has been cut into batons, turn it 90 degrees and slice cross-wise. This will make the right-sized cubes. (For larger dices, simply start with larger batonnet-type cuts.)
The smallest of the dice cuts, brunoise is a mere 1-2 mm square. Just like dicing starts with batonnet, a brunoise begins with food cut into julienne. Then, it’s a simple matter of turning it 90 degrees and slicing it cross-wise to make the small squares.
Brunoise is particularly great for things like shallots, where tiny cubes of the allium go a long way. Pop them on top of salads, to flavour a vinaigrette or use as a base for pan sauces, like Andrea Nicholson did in the Quickfire after finely dicing an impressive 273 grams of them in three minutes.
Watch How to Brunoise an Onion:
This knife skill is generally used for herbs or leafy vegetables (think spinach or chard) that cuts them into ribbon-like strips. A larger chiffonade of leafy greens is great for cooking, while using the technique on herbs like basil or sage makes a beautiful garnish.
Start by stacking the leaves one on top of the other and then rolling them tightly, like a cigar. Slice through the stack cross-wise (across the cigar shape). The narrower the cut, the more fine your ribbon strips will be.
Watch How to Chiffonade Basil: