I cashed in one of my Christmas presents yesterday, taking the one day Knife Skills 1 class at NYC's Institute of Culinary Education. The class was three hours long and taught by Norman Weinstein, a colorful character. I'm no dynamo in the kitchen, but I considered myself competent, though self-taught, with a knife. What I aspired to was the speed and accuracy of the chefs I'd seen on television. Like Daniel LaRusso, I walked in expecting to break boards, and instead was handed sponges and paintbrushes and told to wash cars and paint fences.
This was a good thing. We started with basics, the knives themselves. Weinstein was a huge advocate of Wusthof knives, and those were the type provided for the class. They're the same knives provided to the professional students at the school (we were the recreational track). I was glad to hear it as the 8" cook's knife and 3.5" paring knife I have at home are both Wusthof. Something about the way they feel in the hands just feels right versus knives like Henckels, and they have a nice heft to them. Some people prefer lighter blades, but the techniques we learned in the class rely on the heft of the knife to do a lot of the work, so wielding lighter knives (e.g. Global knives) would require more effort and strain from the arm.
Along those lines, Weinstein sold me on the idea that size matters, and by the end of the class I'd come around to his line of thinking (I could hear Paul Hogan's voice in my mind's ear: "8" cook's knife? That's not a knife. [Pulling out 10" cook's knife.] This is a knife"). I spent most of the class wielding the 10" cook's knife, and at the end, I took advantage of the one-time 10% discount they offer to students of that class to purchase a Wusthof Classic 10" Cook's Knife from the school store. That special discount brings prices for Wusthofs down below those you can find on the internet and was an unexpected benefit of taking the class.
The most important thing I learned in the class was not to ever chop down with a knife. Let the blade do the work, and the blade works best when it's moving more horizontally than vertically. Most of our cuts were made pushing the knife away from us, angled slightly down. With the proper technique, cutting vegetables became effortless, almost zenlike, the bolster of the knife tracing a tilted ellipse in the air.
We learned how to grip various knives, which knives to use for which tasks, what the best cutting board material and brand was, how many knives we needed to own, how to hone and sharpen knives, and, of course, how to cut a variety of vegetables. Of course, some of it was Weinstein's opinion, and different teachers at the school have their own preferences. Another student who was preparing to work in a restaurant soon mentioned that another teacher she'd had at ICE used nothing but the Wusthof Santoku Knife. Most all the experienced chefs and cooks there use the same basic techniques, though, and now, hopefully, so will I.
Fun class, and recommended for all who have a few hours to spare to learn basic kitchen knife skills. Everone in the class was older than I was and had spent a lifetime in the kitchen, and even they had much to unlearn and learn. I may have to pony up for Knife Skills 2 and 3.