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Need more Zen in your life? Learn how to chop

Chef Ivan Fonseca, left, demonstrates the Japanese style of knifing as fellow chef Eugene Shewchuk looks on inside the kitchen of Messis Restaurant Monday July 4, 2011.

Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail/tim fraser The Globe and Mail

"You have to modernize," Eugene Shewchuk, my friend and the owner of Messis, a well-loved neighbourhood restaurant in Toronto, told me over dinner. "You're too busy to spend hours preparing traditional meals."

He was right. I was so sick of cooking, I'd happily serve up protein pellets if I could get away with it.

He offered to show me a new way of doing things in the kitchen. But first I'd have to learn to chop. Chop? What on earth did chopping have to do with cooking?

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Everything, according to Mr. Shewchuk, who grew up in Northern Ontario and once ran a bistro in Paris. For many Japanese chefs, cooking is chopping. Although he doesn't take things as far, Mr. Shewchuk believes in "the elegant gesture" in cooking, whose rituals are part of the beauty of life. Knives are a big part of this. (He uses hand-forged Japanese ones.) If you are a master chopper, preparing food becomes pleasurable and even poetic.

He maintains that chopping is a kinetic meditation. He says he could chop mushrooms all day and not grow bored. The focus you need while handling sharp objects bring a Zen-like peacefulness, a hard-won state at the best of times. He gave me a starter knife, a Kaneshige, with a light, thin blade and pakkawood handle, and told me to show up some afternoon at Messis.

I didn't see how sharp objects could lead to inner tranquillity. But I had a novel out on submission, an anxious time in a writer's life. I needed a distraction.

He took me to the back of the restaurant. Bean sprouts were growing in large Mason jars. Chicken stock was bubbling on the burners. Men in aprons were running back and forth. Mr. Shewchuk put an apron on me and set to work on my re-education.

He demonstrated two chopping motions: the Asian-style chop, where a brisk bouncing motion of the wrist propels the entire blade up and down, and the European-style chop, where just the heel of the blade rises and falls in a rocking motion. Some say the European chop is more precise, but the Asian chop is definitely faster.

Naturally, you have to hold the knife properly. Ivan Fonseca, a chef at Messis, holds the knife by the handle only. He should know. He and his partner, Olivia Go, provide chopping demos and are opening a knife store this month in Toronto's Annex area. Mr. Shewchuk holds it closer to the blade in the pinch grip, which he learned at cooking school. But no matter how you grip the knife, it's best to hold your fingers primly back so your knuckles protect your thumb.

Feeling awkward and self-conscious, I made all the usual first mistakes. I stuck out my thumb and I didn't do the European chop vigorously enough - the red peppers looked pretty ragged. I managed better with the zucchini and mushrooms; I didn't cut myself, either.

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Afterward, I ate my reward: a delicious lunch of scallops and vegetables. Contentment settled over me. Even better: I'd forgotten to worry about my book.

Mr. Shewchuk gave me a second, bigger knife, with a magnolia wood handle, and told me to practise with both it and the Kaneshige at home. At first, I was too nervous. Although he called them starter knives, they looked like art objects to me. Light and sharp, they could cut through a page of my newspaper with shocking ease. And I was nervous about unthinkingly scraping the board with my knife, a big no-no (along with cutting frozen foods, opening cans or using the knife as a pliers or a hammer).

Over the course of a month, I waited for a publishing deal and I chopped like a samurai warrior in training. Gradually, I grew more comfortable. I showed some friends my new chops and brought my niece to one of my tutorials. I found myself looking forward to the grounded calm that comes with chopping, its sense of connection to the rhythms of the day. We were introduced to the bâtonnet, which creates small sticks; the julienne, which makes very thin strips like matchsticks, and then the brunoise, in which the julienne is finely diced.

As we began cutting up cucumbers, tomatoes, avocado, sweet onions, jicama root and kohlrabi, I realized that there was something cathartic about chopping - perhaps it was the pleasure of pretending I was chopping off … well, not the heads of certain slow-moving editors but cutting some less vital body part into a julienne. I was starting to understand: If chopping means imagining that various problems (or people) are getting cut too, that's just part of the elegant gesture.

When we were done, my niece's neatly diced vegetables rose in tidy mounds next to my free-spirited heaps of higgledy-piggledy pieces. "Chopping is a talent like playing the piano," Mr. Fonseca said consolingly. "Some people have it and others don't, but your chopping will get better with practice."

After we ate our salsa, served with smoked salmon bacon and ginger dressing, we went outside for the last demonstration of the afternoon. Mr. Shewchuk had set up a six-foot dummy figure made out of plastic water bottles. He took out a samurai sword he owns and with several forceful sideways strokes, shredded the dummy figure. Mr. Fonseca dispensed with another dummy right after. Clearly, knives can be murderous objects. In fact, Japanese cooking knives come from the samurai sword and cleavers used in Japan to chop tobacco.

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But chopping is meditative bliss. Go ahead and try it, although you need to take a lesson in how to do it properly first. It's no good rushing into kinetic meditation. You have to learn to cut through your worries and frustrations, the way I did, chop by chop.

Where you can learn to chop and dice

Chances are, learning how to chop and dice not only will make you a better cook, it will also help you de-stress. Here are some places across the country that regularly offer knife-skill classes.


Appetite for Books, 388 Victoria Ave., 514-369-2002


Le Cordon Bleu, 453 Laurier Ave. E., 613-236-2433


Nella Cucina, 876 Bathurst St., 416-922-9055

Healthy Butcher, 298 Eglinton Ave. W., 416-674-2642


Cookbook Co. Cooks, 722 11 Ave. S.W., 403-265-6066


The Dirty Apron, 540 Beatty St., 604-879-8588

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