Eating at fine dining establishments can stupefy a kid. How on earth, a child might wonder, did they manage to get the carrots, celery and onion to be perfect little squares- all around the same size? Just like many children, many adults (even the ones who cook) don’t know that proper knife technique makes a world of difference in making anything from mirepoix (the above-noted veggie melange) to chopping a chicken. It’s amazing how many completely lack even the most basic knife skills, which is what Peter Hertzmann noticed as soon as he published an article on the subject on his website.
Said article caused his viewer ratings to increase exponentially- people wanted to know, “what am I doing wrong?” And Hertzmann is the man to tell them. A self-professed “obsessive sort” who likes to delve into things deeply to understand them as much as possible, Hertzmann knows all about knives- the good, the bad and the simply incorrect.
Hertzmann was recently in Toronto before his book signing session (for his new book called Knife Skills Illustrated: A User’s Manual) at the Cookbook Store in the heart of the city where we had the chance to chat. Here for you Food Trend readers is the conversation with the knife-wielding pro.
Food Trends: How did you get interested in cooking and cooking techniques?
Peter Hertzmann: It all started when I was a Boy Scout but actually, I really had to learn to cook when I got into college. Afterwards, I started learning about Chinese cooking and really got into it. I even studied Chinese history, culture and the language. This was when I was living in San Francisco.
FT: Why Chinese food?
PH: Growing up in the 1950s in California, this was really the only available “fast food” we had that you could buy as take out. I eventually took cooking classes from Martin Yan, who is from Toronto here and studied with him at his school in Foster City, CA. That’s where I learned to use a cleaver.
FT: When do you use a cleaver?
PH: I use it really when I’m making Chinese food mostly, otherwise I use other knives- such as a chef’s knife. But I like to say I have the “Noah’s Ark” of kitchens- I have a minimum of two of everything because when you use one, you invariably need the second one.
FT: Which knives are essential to any kitchen?
PH: The 10” Chef’s Knife to be sure, a small pairing knife (also sold as a mushroom fluter) for peeling or boning a chicken using a pinch grip, a slicer or carving knife for a roast or Christmas turkey, a serrated knife for bread loaves and a boning knife.
FT: Describe a pinch grip for our readers.
PH: A pinch grip is the proper way to hold most knives. You literally “pinch” the blade just in front of the handle with our thumb and forefinger (he demonstrates) like this. Then you wrap your other fingers around the handle- this works with large knives and small knives. This is particularly good when you’re cutting toward a bone, for example. When people put their forefinger on top of the blade- that’s the wrong way to hold a knife
FT: What’s your favourite cutting board because some are better than others, right?
PH: Yes, my favourite is an end grain wooden cutting board. I have the same Chinese chopping board from years ago- and it’s spruce. Your average board will be edge grain, such as maple. These are harder and can dull your blade faster. Finally, there’s the plastic cutting board- high density polyethylene are the most common. 3/4” should be the thickness and if you put a tea towel underneath it, it won’t slide around as much. I know people worry about bacteria on wooden cutting boards, but in the late 60s I believe it was, the San Francisco health department studied bacteria on wooden cutting boards and found that an enzyme in it kills most bacteria in 20 minutes.
FT: How do you keep your knives sharp?
PH: (Pulling out a Diamond Fingers knife sharpener). With this mostly. (He slides the chef’s knife across it a few times). Most knives take well to being sharpened at 20 degrees off centre- especially chef’s knives.
FT: A few fun questions- what’s your least favourite thing to cut?
PH: The most tedious for me was peeling peas- yes, each one was peeled one by one.
FT: What’s the hardest/most difficult thing to cut?
PH: I’d have to say that’s butchering because you have to know the anatomy of the animal you’re butchering. Boning out complex cuts of meat can be a challenge.
FT: Thanks for your time Peter.
PH: My pleasure.
You can pick up a copy of the well-illustrated (including both right and left hand instructions/illustrations for all you lefties out there who often feel left out), highly useful and informative Knife Skills Illustrated at the Cookbook store or online. From onions, garlic, celeriac to chicken, Hertzmann has you covered. A handy present for the cook in your life or for yourself