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Spurning the popular jelly moulds and canned soup casseroles in the early 1970s, I borrowed a copy of Mediterranean Food and read voraciously about Elizabeth David’s “honest cooking."
So what if the required fresh fish, garden-picked herbs and sun-soaked vegetables were in short supply in suburban Toronto at the time? I learned that a good knife is an essential tool in this and all forms of cooking. Discretionary spending money was as scarce as the Mediterranean ingredients, but careful management of my grocery budget enabled the purchase (from the local hardware store) of a high-end German knife. Little did I realize that it would be in my hand almost daily for the next 50-odd years, and nearly impossible to abandon.
This knife has an eight-inch, finely serrated blade and a brown wooden handle. I called it the “brown knife.” Whether a testament to its flexibility or my determination to make it work, the knife carved, chopped, boned, peeled, sliced – and more. Family and friends eventually overcame their terror of the uses to which I put it.
As time passed, I became a little more affluent and the equipment in my kitchen also increased. It never occurred to me, however, to abandon my brown knife. That is, not until a visitor, whose culinary skills I respect, declared: “There isn’t a decent knife in this house!”
The shock was acute. There I was, a reasonably sophisticated and experienced cook, working with a bread knife.
A sales person at a trendy kitchen shop explained the difference between a chef’s knife and a carving knife. I recognized the paring knife on my own and bought all three. The sales person noted that the two large knives would soon need to be sharpened and that I should avoid storing them in a drawer with other kitchen utensils. Regrettably, the store did not sharpen knives, but could sell me a magnetic knife rack. Ha! This knife business was going to require even more time, effort and expense than I thought.
I had a vague recollection of an old fellow with a cigarette dangling from his mouth walking about the streets ringing a bell and stopping to sharpen knives for those requiring his services. I had not, though, seen this itinerant knife sharpener anywhere in downtown Toronto where I now lived. I continued to cook with my faithful old brown knife, having decided not to initiate the new knives until they were freshly sharpened.
Google helped me find a “knife studio” in an up-and-coming part of the city. The handsome, young man who greeted me was the antithesis of the knife sharpener of memory. He sat before a table holding a natural stone over which water poured. Eastern music played softly in the background and antique knives with elaborately decorated handles were displayed in glass cases on the walls. We had a pleasant conversation about knives in general, the sharpening of mine and fusion food. The experience bordered on the spiritual.
I proudly lined up my newly sharpened knives on the magnetic rack at the start of the Thanksgiving weekend and commenced preparations for our celebratory dinner. Grasping the chef’s knife as I do my brown knife – decidedly inappropriately as I later learned – I attempted to cut a rutabaga, only to cut my guiding hand. I wondered how I was going to prepare a large and complex dinner in my temporarily maimed state. Then I realized that there was no need to start using the new knives immediately. Once the brown knife was in my grasp, I was again confident.
Obviously, I needed training in the proper use of a knife but training became a far-off goal as my life became busy.
The sight of the “good” knives on display occasionally made me feel phoney and – eventually – I signed up for a Knife Skills class at one of the country’s top hospitality schools. I eagerly showed up to my first class with those now 10-year-old “new” knives.
The chef instructor demonstrated brunoise, dice, julienne, baton, tourné and various other knife cuts, as well as the way to chop an onion, section an orange, make a radish rose, flute a mushroom and peel a pineapple – all the while chatting to the class and barely looking at his fingers. He then set each of us the task of doing the same things to an enormous tray of vegetables and fruit. I managed to address the onions and a few of the carrots and potatoes, but realized that I was definitely not up to the pineapple. The fluted mushrooms were way beyond me. Surely it must be my knives! After all, I had purchased them from a chic kitchen boutique, rather than from “a person who really understands knives” as the chef mentioned in the class introduction. I brought my fruit and vegetable mess home (where my brown knife made short work of it) and went in search of a knife specialist next day.
The place I found clearly relied on its reputation, as the only discernible identification was a metal sculpture of a chef’s knife hanging above the door. The small premises consisted of nothing but locked glass cases of knives and wooden blocks on which to test them. The business, it soon became apparent, was grounded as much in the expertise of its proprietor as its stock. He obviously had no time for window shoppers, but once I had expressed serious interest in acquiring (purchasing seemed too crass a word under the circumstances) knives, he was more than willing to explore my needs and identify options. Who would have known there is such a fundamental difference between a German and a French chef’s knife? Or that Japanese boning knives are to be avoided at all costs? I came away with an education, as well as two top-of-the-line Sabatier French knives.
Using my Sabatiers, I made it through my Knife Skills course, boning several chickens and learning to fillet both round fish and flat fish. A freezer full of soup made from mutilated vegetables attests my continuing practise. When I must get a meal onto the table quickly, however, I instinctively reach for my old friend, brown knife.
Margaret Grisdale lives in Toronto.