So You Married an Ax Murderer from Knife Skills School

You never know what someone's thinking. Lock yourself in the most intimate, passionate embrace with your lover of thirty years, look them straight in the eye and ask, "What are you thinking darling, right this moment?"

They tenderly respond that they're remembering the night you got caught in the rain and how terrified (but still beautiful) you looked. As they swept the wet, matted hair away from your eyes they realized that they have never, ever, been in love with you more.

But they could be thinking about a tuna sandwich.

Sure I can make souffles with my eyes closed, skate through life on my store-bought looks and inherited wealth of knowledge, but I also thought that whenever I cook -- I knew how to properly cut and chop the food. After a knife skills class at The Gourmandise School for Wayward Chefs, I discovered I didn't know jack about knives.

Some lovers grab a pole and put on naughty striptease shows for their partners. I put on cooking shows for Bob. He's 60% audience and 80% director -- adding ideas and concerns like he's adjusting the seasoning of the dish. When I cut, sliced and diced while cooking, from his vantage point it looked like I was an epileptic madman hacking away at a jagged rock, destined to cut my jugular vein at any moment.

I, too, feared I might cut myself -- though not from my lack of knife skills, but from the shock I get from his outbursts. Just as I place the knife in a tomato, Bob might spit out a blood-curdling "Stop!!!!" He's Jewish so this could mean he spotted a yard sale in Boca, or I'm doing something terribly, terribly dangerous.

I went to the three-hour knife skills class with the hope that the life I save might be my own.

That only four other students enrolled for this particular class meant more personal attention for me from our teacher, Christianne (Chris) Winthrop, an accomplished chef with altruistic purposes (Taste of the Nation) and an accredited writer (LA Times). Early on in class, she demonstrated improper knife holding by shower-stabbing Janet Leigh. She had me at Psycho. You have to respect the person giving you information.

When someone has knowledge I need and want, I listen hungrily. When that person has a knife, I listen humbly. Chris began the class discussing the mechanics of knives. She whipped some out. I was glad to learn that one needed only three -- a chef's knife, a paring knife and one with a serrated edge. I was loving the thought of more drawer space; however, what would I do with the dozens of other pricey blades I had purchased over the years? I dared not throw them away in case my rummaged garbage unleashed a mad dumpster diving murderer in Santa Monica. I can't have that on my conscience and I can't have a yard sale because I am too ashamed to show strangers what I once thought worthy of buying.

Oh no -- it was happening. My mind was leaving the scene of the crime because Chris began talking math: millimeters and knife lengths and what it cost per linear inch to have them sharpened by this crazy judgey guy on 4th Street. She droned on about the cost of knives and how the angle at which to cut was forty degrees or the height of two pennies and I heard something about measuring for baking which sounded like algebra and I totally glazed over because I have no math, and now possibly no knife, skills. 

I wandered off and into the steamy memories of my first Turkish bath in Istanbul. Just like I thought I could correctly chop food, I thought I could properly bathe. I'd been bathing for years, even had gang-banged the practice in the Marine Corps where I was able to compare techniques; however, when I was bathed by a swarthy Turk, in a mystical mist-filed room with clean white tiled walls that loudly echoed tales from the 15th century -- I learned that I heretofore had no idea how to bathe. 

I didn't know what the bath attendants were really thinking as they confidently grabbed and raised my arms that are honed to perfection like a fine knife blade, like they were inspecting a common chicken in the market. They used ancient rough brushes and possibly their own thick five o'clock shadows to scrub the Western infidel dirt off of my body. They silently and expertly guided me through an amazing, life-changing and affirming event. I went in with an idle tan and came out invigorated, and as white as if I'd seen my own soul. A Turkish bath experience might be why so many people there still smoke.

I didn't want to be bored during the knife class. "The first rule about knives," I heard Chris say, snapped me away from the trip to Walter Mitty-land. 

I love rules. When she asked who was guilty of putting knives in the dishwasher, she narrowed one eye and raised the other brow as if she also needed to also know if you were a monster who put your own baby in the dishwasher. Everyone raised their hands except me. I was relieved not to have done this heinous act, as I'm also relieved not to do dishes. (Turns out the blast of water and the knocking about dulls the blade.) 

Rule #2: Never catch a falling knife. I imagined a huge, razor sharp cleaver, slipping from my grip as I went to tweet a thought, falling in slo-mo to the floor, and I skillfully caught it like a carny juggler. But carnies are carnies for a reason, so the blade slices my hand completely off and both fall to the floor. Blood spurts out like a Tarantino victim, and, damn, I'm now unable to Instagram the moment. I'm cured forever of violating Rule #2. A falling knife is that waifery thin orphan in Les Mis -- on her own.

Channeling Lucy Liu in Kill Bill II, Chris slaps my cutting board with a spatula, barking that until my index finger is sore and calloused, my training is not complete. I have been holding a knife incorrectly my entire life. I'll fix that behavior. Chris adjusted my grip to include a bit of the blade for stability. In my head I heard Lucy Liu screech: And don't drag your knife through the food like a girl, man -- take hold of your damn knife and chop it! Chop! 

Chris slammed a bell pepper on the chopping block, and in one swift move, splayed and filleted it like a fish. She took the now seedless pepper's green flesh, stacked one slab on another. She laid out chopping basics: Planks, sticks, squares. We were to first create flat surfaces or planks, then slice those into sticks, then those into squares. Step by logical step, and the food results in perfectly squared, all-the-same-size pieces. Adjust where your knife falls and you accomplish fine, medium and rough chop just "as seen on TV."

Chris announced that she knew what we were all thinking. Everyone wants to cut an onion like a star, to dazzle their friends. I was, but I was also thinking about a burger. I'm a busy multi-tasking thinker and it was dinnertime. 

She taught me which end of the onion to leave intact (the hairy one), how to slice it into -- you got it: planks, then sticks, then squares. I laid the onion down on it's side and slid my knife in. It seemed dangerously awkward, but it worked.

It was kind of dazzling. I might lay off the Oompah Loompahs and just stay home and chop onions myself. Bob would worry that I was so quiet, and discover me in the kitchen, hidden by mounds of chopped onions. He'd see the shiny blade of my Wusthoff 8-inch chef's knife flying up and down, sending tiny squares of onions flying around like aromatic snowflakes -- except each dice would be perfect, therefore better than inferior snowflakes, with their inimitable uniqueness.

I came to cooking class to get more confidence. I learned grab my knife firmly, to freely move the food as necessary for my benefit and not pander to it. I now blanch tomatoes in scalding water for thirty seconds, so the peel slides off like a virgin's panties after vodka. Splay the meaty flesh open, unseed the champion and again, planks, sticks, squares.

By hour two I was bossily squishing garlic with the fat side of my knife, all cocky like a cowboy makes love. I chopped it so fine that if it weren't fragrant, it might be suspected of being cocaine.

Chris showed me how to leave the tip of celery intact to keep it together like a starlet's career, guiding it along my board and under my falling blade. Carrots were soon diced like micromanaged lawn clippings, and rosemary was my little bitch -- I chopped her into powder.

I'd been dragging my knife for years through the food. So wrong. Chris taught me to pull the blade up and down into the food, a true chop. With my new grip, it made so much sense. I've been so stupid and blindly cutting. She even set my non-knife-wielding hand correctly so that I could actually do this blindfolded --with my middle finger extended farthest, my other fingers safely tucked behind like little timid children. My knuckle hits the blade and acts as a guide. What was once so scary and intimidating now makes sense. 

Chris tells me to take my time and enjoy the cutting process. With practice I know that I eventually won't chop with the clumsiness of Frankenstein's first steps; but soon be slicing across the cutting board as gracefully as Nureyev jetéing across the stage in nothing but tights and eyeliner.

Each time we finished chopping an individual vegetable, we threw the unwanted parts into a garbage bowl. I unloaded the bowl into a stock pot on top of hot olive oil. In went loose bay leaves, bundled thyme, a whole garlic with the head callously, but perfectly, lopped off, onion skins, has-been carrot tops, ugly celery, cilantro, funky mushrooms and no salt. She explained to never add salt to stock, so it may be used to the best effect in every sauce from demi-glace to velouté. I demi-glazed over as she started into cooking times for stock: four hours for chicken, twenty for beef, forty-five minutes for vegetable.

I stirred the pot for about five minutes, releasing some aromas and searing others in. Once it seemed a huge, steaming compost heap, I covered the mound with water and let it simmer. I resumed my knife lessons.

I chiffonaded basil and kale. I conquered a butternut squash without blood or pain to either of us. Like leading a horse to water, or teaching a man to fish, Chris stood back and folded her arms, and told us to look at all of our dishes of chopped ingredients. What I had before me was a recipe for success -- the ingredients for a minestrone and a butternut squash soup. Which we'd now prepare. 

I wasn't prepared to cook, too. I'd pictured knife school as me chopping endlessly, being yelled at by an Asian taskmaster as the teacher, You call that chopping?! I should chop off your hands -- you bring shame to this dojo! I'd figured us used as cheap labor, forced to cut up mounds of potatoes that the school would then turn into soup for schools or sell to prisons since their food budget is higher.

I raised my olive oil bottle and drizzled it in my soup pot with the flourish of an animated chef. I gently, and a little sadly, eased in the onion, celery and carrots that I had just chopped -- it was too soon to release them. But I was hungry. I'd been sneaking into the school's pantry and eating uncooked pasta. I sprinkled finely chopped rosemary over the top as if it were pixie dust. Soon, magic did happen, the aroma of the herbs and vegetables rose up and sent the same thrill through me that I had when I first wobbily rode a bike unassisted down the street.

Yes, I cook a lot, but this was professionally guided. This felt like the farmer feels when he pulls a radish from the ground that he himself had pushed down into the earth as a seed. The secret happy dance that he did in the field when no one was watching to make the radish grow was going on in my head right now as I stirred my soup's base.  

Normally I would have added stock by now. But Chris told me to relax; let the onions soften completely. They aren't Levis being washed over and over to help ease the stiffness; onions don't get softer from boiling in stock. It was hard to wait that seven or eight minutes. Had Chris not been watching, and holding a knife, I'd have prematurely ejaculated the stock in the pot.

When the time was right, she had me grab a strainer. I started to protest, but she held a finger to my quivering lips, ssshhhh. She eased it on the top of the stock pot, and pushed it down, allowing stock to fill the mesh void as it submerged. Et voila, we had perfectly strained, ready-to-add stock without lifting the heavy pot and soiling bowls or more pots.

Maybe this was learned in her chef's training, or necessity had borne the invention, because the dishwasher has called in sick that night at the school. I heard mumblings of we students getting a bonus "dishwashing experience at no extra charge." Not gonna be me; wearing their used apron was my limit.

I learned a lot from this class, and Chris. As my bounty of chopped ingredients neared the end of their journey to soup, I tasted it. I had asked Chris when to add salt, and she advised after each ingredient is added. A pinch, she taught me, is 1/16 of teaspoon, so you have sixteen pinches before even a teaspoon is reached. She stressed the importance of a flavorful soup base and told us that woodsy herbs like rosemary and thyme can be sauteed with the savory trilogy of onions, carrots and celery to enhance that.

My soup was beautiful. The kale stayed bright green the entire time. Although it needed salt, I held off. Parmesan cheese finished the dish, and Bob has taught me that the cheese adds salt. I sprinkled the cheese, a little basil, stirred, and sat there all alone with my thoughts and soup. Who knew what the others were thinking about their lesson, but I was content.

Knife skills 101 is under my belt. Advanced Skills Class is in my sight, where Chris says we get to de-bone a chicken and threaten old people. At least I think that's what she said; she started talking class dates and class sizes and the next thing I knew I was walking down the hall, rubbing my sore finger, digesting my night and my soup. I happed upon this mall Easter Bunny waiting for poseurs. He had a fan on him, trying not to melt from the heat. 

For once I can tell exactly what someone else was truly thinking. We both were imagining him naked.


  1. GCW had his perfect window of opportunity to test his vegetable castrating skills on a lovely minestrone when he returned to Fort Lauderdale and visited a sick friend...who wouldn't have been sick if she hadn't carried coats back and for to DC like they were a tube of lipstick.

    The soup was a treasure,delish,just enough of a spicy touch to clear the head...and had to finish the dish..after all I had to get the bowl back.

  2. Gregory,
    Lots of good info there, particularly about getting the panties off virgins. Some information comes at exactly the right time in life and some comes too late. Where were you when i needed you?
    Anyway, thanks for all the good information and to all the virgins out there, thanks for nothing.


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