Last week, I checked a major Someday/Maybe item off my to do list (also the sole item in the “Fun” section of my task management system… feel free to judge accordingly): an introductory culinary knife skills class.
I’ve always loved cooking, but these days it’s not a practical hobby: I travel a ton, I live alone, and if I were to spend a weekend home cooking, I wouldn’t be able to consume the food before either it went bad or I got sick of it. Also, my kitchen is an ugly, sad, poorly ventilated room with hideous cabinets and thus, I don’t spend much time there.
Anyway, you should run — not walk — to take a knife skills class (and if in DC, I highly recommend the one at CulinAerie with Susan Watterson as the instructor). Here’s why:
- You are probably not holding your knife correctly. I know this because the last four friends I told this story too (who love to cook) were not holding their knife correctly.
- You are probably not be efficient with motions while chopping or slicing.
- Deboning a chicken will be one of the more satisfying experiences of the week.
- You’ll learn a number of ways to be more efficient with your shopping — both of knives and food.
- You will produce a beautifully cut carrot within the first 20 minutes. Please see mine:
That said, I’m a big fan of optimizing experiences. Here’s what I would keep in mind if you are taking an introductory cooking class on a Saturday morning:
- Apparently a lot of people give newlyweds/newly-engaged/cute couples in their lives cooking classes as a present. Here’s the thing: the cute couple in someone else’s life is not a cute couple in my life. I spent three hours behind two hippies making out between cuts. And I had a big knife at my disposal. It was quite an exercise in restraint.
- A lot of people see knife skills as a good intro class and, literally, have never cut anything other than the packaging around a microwave meal. Be prepared for people around you to be confused about pretty much everything. Wait… when you said keep the root on to hold the onion together, did you mean this root that I just cut off? Ooopsies!
- You just might be forced to work next to Mary Jane. Because I did and she was a complete moron who will likely have to repeat the course several more times. Mary Jane was a delightful Southern belle in a relationship with a hairy and verbally abusive man whose name I’ve already forgotten. What’s great about WhatsHisName is he doesn’t let his own lack of knife skills slow down his criticism of everything Mary Jane does. And what’s great about Mary Jane is like a goldfish, by the time she swims around the bowl, she’s forgotten everything he’s said.
Since I’m solutions-oriented, rather than offer a multi-paragraph, detail-studded “Ode to Mary Jane,” I’ll give you this advice: if you take this course, you should call and find out a) if you work in partners and b) if you’re at small tables or in small groups. And then, you should take the class with however many friends you need to use as a buffer from everyone else in the room. Sartre was right: hell is other people, but if you’re going to be stuck there, you don’t want to be while learning how to wield sharp objects.
This is the first in what will be a very valuable series to KU Says readers with tips for succeeding on various reality television programs. With “Chopped All Stars” premiering on Sunday, it seemed appropriate to kick this off with with “Chopped,” a.k.a. the greatest food competition program involving multiple surprise ingredients since “Ready, Set, Cook” with Sissy Biggers.
Since J and I are devoted “Chopped” viewers, here are some tips we prepared if you don’t want Ted giving you the knife.
You’re supposedly a professional (except for that lobster roll delivery dude). Get the basics right.
- Cook your protein correctly, above all else. Here’s the thing: if three people screw up, the guy who got a nice sear with a medium rare temperature is definitely making it through.
- Don’t leave in bones, strings, cartilage, or anything else inedible. That’s just amateur hour and this is usually where the home cooks/caterers/private chefs who specialize in “kosher locavore dining” fail.
- Don’t forget your sauce. It cures dryness, pulls multiple components together, shows your personal style, and allows you to mask an ingredient you didn’t understand how to use properly.
- You should know how to budget time for: starches (rice, pasta, risotto, potatoes), protein (see #1), and baked goods. Poorly cooked rice is a common competitive food show enemy; unless it’s in the basket, we recommend staying away.
Embrace what Chopped stands for: creativity and resourcefulness.
- If it’s in the basket; it must be transformed. We know you didn’t know what to do with those corn chips, but crumbling them and sprinkling on the side isn’t incorporating them into the dish. If you didn’t fool us, you’re not fooling Zakarian. I mean, the man’s basically one step away from God (did you see him get a perfect score on “Iron Chef America?” Does that even happen?)
- No clue what an ingredient is? Regardless of round, you can probably put it in a blender.Other tips:
- Appetizer round: use for vinaigrette or chop into salad
- Entree round: gastrique that bitch*
- Dessert round: blend with Marscarpone
We know you’re not a pastry chef, but go out with a bang.
- Your dessert needs to be a dessert (not breakfast, all ye French toast offenders), but it can’t be too sweet. None of the judges like that (except sometimes Aaron Sanchez).
- If you think you can make an ice cream, do it. A good ice cream pretty much always wins this round. That said, if you think you’re going to make an ice cream, get to the machine first. I shouldn’t have to tell you that if you lose that machine, you’ll be stuck trying to make a last minute parfait and hoping the deep freezer works faster (spoiler: it never does).
- Don’t bake anything, it will not be done in time (unless you’re a baker and they’re looking for that from you). If you are able to bake successfully, by all means do, and feel free to offer a touching story about how the recipe for that crisp came from your blind grandmother who you’d like to use the proceeds from winning to visit.
Seriously, this is television, be presentable.
- Plate before the 1 minute mark and don’t use a ring mold if what you have won’t set, it will ultimately look like dog food. There’s very little you can cook in under 60 sec and the judges reward strong presentation.
- Don’t contaminate your food by double dipping/tasting. The judges who need to eat that food are maybe 12 feet away… what’s wrong with you???
Additional personal pet peeves:
- J doesn’t like people who cut themselves and bleed nor does he like people who are a**holes.
- K doesn’t like people who tell long stories about how they want to win for their [insert sob story]-afflicted family. It’s called Chopped not Make A Wish.
*K believes that gastrique is to Chopped as sous-vide is to Top Chef. Discuss.