Do you remember that first knife that you called your own? Mine was a 12-inch Sabatier carbon steel beauty that held a razor sharp edge. That knife could slice through vegetables like they were butter, and far too frequently mistook my fingers for a carrot. Still, I loved that knife, sharpened it on a wet stone every day and kept a flat steel close to my side whenever I worked. The carbon steel was not pretty, but I sacrificed that for the edge that I could have used for shaving. Unfortunately, someone else felt that he or she needed my knife more than I did and it disappeared one year. I still mourn the loss of that blade.
There is a unique connection between a cook and his or her knives. We may only use two or three different knives (French, Paring, Boning), but the longer we cook, the more we become obsessed with adding to our collection. It is not uncommon to find a cook carrying a tool box that weighs as much as a sack of onions – filled with specialty tools that may only find a place on your cutting board a few times a year, but they are always close at hand – just in case. How we care for those tools goes a long way toward defining the type of person we are, and how serious we are about the profession we chose.
“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”
Here are some of the observations that I have had and continue to rely on as I mentally assess the quality of a cook:
WHAT YOU CAN LEARN ABOUT COOKs BY WATCHING HOW THEY CARE FOR THER TOOLS
Cooks that respect their knives are more likely to respect those people around them. Their respect for others, however, is determined by how well they care for their own tools. Mutual respect cannot be turned on and off – if you respect your tools then your peers know they can count on you.
There is a connection – caring for your tools clearly reflects on your organizational profile. When I see a neatly tied knife roll and watch how religiously a cook unwraps that roll and gingerly removes knifes from their appointed slot, I can guarantee that this level of organization and reverence for order will follow as they set-up a work station.
Watch a cook who cares for his or her tools and you can be confident that they know how to use them. A seasoned cook knows that a cared for, sharp knife makes the work of a professional so much more fluid and enjoyable. I guarantee that a person who cares for these tools is a cook who produces those perfect knife cuts, who makes child’s play out of mincing herbs, boning out a leg of lamb, cutting steaks, and drawing a slicer through a prime rib without any effort.
“The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.”
Cooks who take ownership of their tools as an obligation are far more likely to take ownership of the restaurants tools, the ingredients they work with, and the finished product that carries their invisible signature. There is a connection.
When your tools are at the ready, when they are known for what they are capable of, when the connection between your hand and the knife is definitive, then the cook feels empowered to perform at a high level. The brain may tell the hands what to do, but the fundamental connection between the hand and the knife can be electric. The knife becomes an extension of the hand muscles and the brain that sent the message. A well cared for knife helps to provide the confidence that cooks need.
In every career that relies on tools for performance, there is an understanding that to be accomplished, to be respected, and to be connected to the very best at their trade – you must hold those tools with respect and care for them. The condition of those tools allows you to be part of the ranks of career cooks who wear the chef’s toque and tie on an apron. At the same time, it is not the tool that makes you a professional it is how you care for and respect those tools and others who are part of that club.
In essence, a cook’s knives are part of the uniform. The uniform that represents professional cooks back to the time of the Renaissance is important to any serious cook. Wearing the uniform and holding that beautiful, closely honed, incredibly sharp knife that sits perfectly in your hand and stands ready to slice, dice, chop, bone, and carve is as significant historically as the double breasted white coat and hounds tooth pants. The cook stands a bit taller when the uniform is clean, pressed, and starched and shows a high level of confidence when that roll bag is opened to reveal an inventory of cutlery – each with a specific purpose, each razor sharp and at the ready, each gleaming with attention to their blade surface, bolster, and handle. When the cook is ready it is because his tools are also ready.
“Japanese chefs believe our soul goes into our knives once we start using them. “
Chefs – when you are preparing to interview cooks for a position in your kitchen, you may want to start by asking them to show you their knife kit. Watch the care with which he or she unwraps that roll bag and how they lay open the inventory of tools. Ask the cook to present a knife to you for inspection. Watch how they present it, maybe with a bit of trepidation since they rarely allow others to handle their important tools of the trade. Look at the handle, the bolster, and the blade; are they impeccably clean? Test the edge – is it sharp and ready for work? You may not need to go any further with the interview – a cook with tools at the ready is a cook that will perform as a professional on the job.
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