It’s the start of another day in the kitchen. Seven in the morning and aside from the baker and breakfast cook, I am alone with clip board in hand and my roll bag of knives placed strategically at a workstation. I arrived a half hour earlier, grabbed a cup of coffee with a splash of milk, removed my starched chef coat and apron from its home in my office, slide my arms into the sleeves feeling the slight resistance from the serious starched press, folded the first layer back, tied on an apron, adjusted my chef’s toque, and stepped into the kitchen that I called my own. Having held the position of chef for nearly 20 years, this routine was very familiar and always enjoyed. I took in the aroma of the early morning kitchen and relished the quiet regimen of the morning crew. They were methodical in their approach – doing their work with barely a sound except for an occasional: “pick-up” bark from the line cook as another series of plates were slide down the pass.
My position didn’t require that I arrive before the rest of the crew, but I enjoyed the peace of early morning, so this was my routine. I secured a cutting board on the stainless table that everyone seemed to relegate to me (my sacred territory). Opening my roll bag, I gently removed my respected tools for the day: 10-inch French knife, flexible boning knife, paring knife, bird’s beak tourne, round steel, and digital pocket thermometer. I drew the blades down the steel a few times on each side of the edge even though I had worked each one on a wet stone at the close of business yesterday. I like to ‘brighten” the edge before I start. I wiped each knife with a side towel dipped in sanitizer solution and strategically set them in place next to the cutting board.
Holding the French knife in my hand I subconsciously recognized each part of this special tool. The tang that runs through the center of the ebony handle and attaches the blade to the stock. The stainless rivets that complete the attachment. The all-important bolster that is thicker and slightly curved as the blade extends from its position. The bolster helps to protect the palm from blisters and is the point of balance for the knife. Balance is important so that the rhythm of cutting flows seamlessly. I take a minute to balance the knife on my finger at the center of the bolster – amazing. I run my fingers down the spine, or the blunt back of the blade. The extra thickness of the spine helps to give the knife its power. I draw my finger across the edge to verify its sharpness and check the tip to make sure that it is still intact. I think what a beautiful tool.
This knife, in particular, has been with me since the early days as a kitchen apprentice. It was a present from the first cook I worked with – Millie. She was a breakfast cook at the diner where I worked as dishwasher. Occasionally, when it was busy, Millie pulled me to the line where I flipped pancakes, browned home fries, and garnished plates. She saw that sparkle in my eyes as the orders piled up – she knew something that I had yet to realize – kitchen life was for me. When I left the diner to attend college for hotel and restaurant management, she gave me the knife; it had been her husband’s favorite. He was a career chef at a downtown dinner house and had worked for decades before he passed away a few years prior. Millie became a cook, out of necessity, and she was great at the work, but it wasn’t her passion, not like her husband. She said that she saw that same passion in my eyes and the knife belonged in the hands of a person who was destined to be in the kitchen. Since then, that knife has never left my roll bag and never left my side.
While I glanced at the prep list in front of me, I began to think about that knife in a different way. “Just think how much this knife has seen?” Wow, I never thought of a knife, a tool, in this manner before. This knife had witnessed the culinary life of three chefs so far. This knife was held, just as I am holding it right now, by three professionals, every day. It has found a home in countless kitchens, cut through thousands of pounds of vegetables, meats, and seafood. It has been drawn across a wet stone tens of thousands of times and brought to a sharp finish on a steel dozens of times each day since it was first forged out of carbon and stainless steel.
This knife has worked tirelessly for more hours than most could imagine, and it never complained, never resisted. This knife sat quietly at the end of each day, tucked away in a leather roll bag, quietly waiting to start work all over again in a few hours. It has seen incredibly busy days and nights, endured relentless beating as its edge hit cutting boards and the heel cut through delicate chicken bones and the spine of fresh fish. This knife was touched, held, and admired by three chefs and anyone else who dared to pick it up to relish its abilities.
This knife, at least for now, is mine. It is an extension of my hands, a tool that allows me to practice my craft, a piece of my history and that of two chefs before me. This knife has seen it all – restaurant openings and closings, the steady build of skill and the confidence to use it. It has occasionally been abused (certainly not by me), been eyed by other cooks as my Excalibur, been present for grand dinners and elaborate buffets, and been photographed countless times without ever being asked for permission. It has been, is, and will always be a star in my eyes and that of every cook who aspired to reach the position that took me decades to earn. This knife is a “witness tool”. If it could talk – oh the stories it could tell.
Although the blade is a bit smaller from constant sharpening over more than 60 years of use, it was still a thing of beauty. My predecessors and I took care of it, used it properly, cleaned it with care, and stored it to preserve the magnificence of the blade and the beauty of the ebony handle. I began to wonder: “Who will I pass this knife on to? What aspiring young cook with that passion in his or her eyes will be the next to carry on this knife’s legacy? What other kitchen and chef will this knife witness?”
There is a deep sense of obligation to protect these witness tools. Ask any cook about it and they will proclaim: “Don’t touch my knives!” This is not a demand to be taken lightly. Every cook is obligated to protect these tools that have seen so much and will see so much more. The knife has a job to do, and it depends on the cook to care for it properly and respect its ability to do so. Cooks and chefs are caretakers of the knife, the witness tool that is one with that cook or chef. “Don’t touch my knives” is not a statement of arrogance, it is a proclamation of intent to protect the story of a cook’s life – to relish every moment that a cook or chef put on that starched white jacket, tied on an apron, set up his or her station, and prepared to experience another day in the kitchen.
Take a moment to wonder: “What have my knives witnessed? Have I shown enough respect for these important tools? Am I committed to protecting the story that this knife can tell? Who will I pass it on to in an effort to keep its legacy alive?” Think about it.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Respect your witness tools
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