First Blood

My knives came yesterday, and the rite of cutting yourself with your own knife almost came too soon. You want it to be a story worthy of telling, not “I was getting it out of the package…” I have tentatively named her “Rachel,” because she’s as sharp as a Maddow takedown. That may change, because as your relationship with your knife grows, it tells you who it is. It’s not about anthropomorphizing an inanimate object. It’s about shorthand- one word to represent everything it is.

A chef’s knife isn’t just a knife, but an extension of their own hand… the only real tool we get to establish dominance over the ticket machine. Calling such a tool by a name everyone else calls it diminishes its importance in our lives.

Not only that, use a knife long enough, and you’ll see that they all develop their own personalities. It doesn’t happen in a week, or even a year, but as you begin to sharpen and hone the shape is different than when you bought it. It sits in your hand slightly differently, an adjustment you don’t notice because you’ve held it day in and day out…. even when you have a knife that cost $17.49, as opposed to the $300-1,000 range. I have used both, and I have seen no appreciable difference in function, just beauty.

This is because I am not excellent at sharpening knives. I would probably feel much differently if I was expert at restoring an edge. I would rather buy a cheap one, not to keep replacing it, but in order not to feel miserable that I just spent an hour honing in the wrong direction. There’s also no electric sharpener on the market that’s worth a dollar. Its only value is in not having to take responsibility for destroying your knife…. you didn’t do it, the machine did. Using an electric sharpener is like putting a Fabergé egg next to a troll doll collection.

Because I’m not so good at sharpening manually, I’ll gladly pay someone else to do it, because yes, I could go out and buy another knife, but then I lose all the history I have with this one. The good news is that I won’t have to worry about it for at least a year. Chicago Cutlery is solid, though I can’t say I’ve used anything but their chef’s knives. In fact, even though my coworkers at Biddy’s (now the O’Neill Pub in Portland, Oregon) often had more expensive knives than me, mine became the favorite. Dana got a thousand-fold from Sur la Table (Lenore) that everyone liked, but seemed to lose an edge more quickly than mine… and the one axiom in the kitchen is that if your knife isn’t just sharp as fuck, you’re going to cut yourself ten times more often. It’s counter-intuitive, but dull knives tear rather than cut, and rarely go in the direction you want…. mostly right over your finger, no matter how good your fingertips are tucked under.

The other knives that came in the set are tucked safely away in a drawer, because I’m not putting those into our community kitchen. It’s fine with me for my roommates to use them, it’s just that I want to be in charge of what happens to them afterward- soap and water, never a dishwasher. To someone who treats a knife as “just a knife,” this won’t seem important. They don’t know they’re dulling the edge in a way you can’t get back, and don’t see why it’s a big deal.

It’s a big deal.

Also, I’m not so impressed with using a different knife for every application. Pretty much the only concession I’ll make is an oyster knife. Everything else can be done with a chef’s knife or a bread knife. For instance, tomato and pepper skins will dull a chef’s knife quite easily, so it’s much better to use a serrated edge. If you must use a chef’s knife for a pepper, cut once on the outside, and put the skin against the cutting board, because you’ll have an easier time slicing the “meat” itself.

Cutting tomatoes reminds me of having to cut five or ten pounds at once for sandwiches, because I’ve never had worse acid burns. It’s worse if you’re wearing rubber gloves, because the acid gets trapped on your wrist and drips down into your palm and fingers. I have a love-hate relationship with safety regulations, because I agree that customers need to be cared for, but it often comes at the expense of keeping cooks safe in the process. I’ve mentioned this before, but wearing gloves while over a griddle or an open flame causes the latex to fuse to your hand, creating so much worse an injury because then it’s hard to get the glove back off to treat the wound… taking a layer of skin with it.

With the exception of making cold sandwiches, any heat applied to food is going to kill bacteria. There’s no need to add latex to the equation. I sometimes think that these rules are made by people who either haven’t been in the kitchen for a long time, or were never cooks to begin with. Otherwise, they would see that gloves take an injury and make it much, much worse. Hot plastic and rubber is a recipe for a trip to the ER…. which no cook will ever forgive you for because you got hurt to the point where you had to leave the line.

There’s no excuse for it, ever. Burned? Stick some Silver Sulfadiazine on it and get back to work. Cut? Super Glue. Ill? WHO THE FUCK CARES? Managers who send sick people home put targets on your back, as if it’s your fault. Even if it’s a bad injury, you’re expected to suck it up and deal, including the invariable nicknames that will arise. Dana had a coworker who cut himself breaking down a fish (salmon, I think) and they called him Filet o’Finger for years.

And as the story of your injury gets further away, the story gets bigger, jeweling the elephant. In three years, a one cm cut becomes a three inch gash that was spurting blood all over the kitchen.

In the time between now and my first shift, I need to work on my snappiest comebacks, mostly about my coworkers mothers, in Spanish.

That’s the other thing. In a kitchen, don’t count on there ever being an HR department. The best defense is a good offense. Words definitely come easier to me than cooking, and I’m pretty damn good at it…. well, in terms of palate. Technique could use a little work. I’m always striving for excellence, because I’ll never achieve perfection.

I suspect that no one ever does in the eternal war with the ticket machine. It is relentless, even with Rachel at my side.

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