The Chef Diaries: Knife Skills 101

Before we begin, I have to admit that I am not the most accurate or precise of cooks. If the recipe calls for an ingredient that doesn’t come immediately to hand, I find an alternative in the bottom of the fridge. And I am infamous in our kitchen for my lack of aptitude with knives, to the detriment of my fingers, but to the benefit of Band-Aid shares. In the words of Bill Bryson ‘I ache to be suave,’ but I rarely am. So I was delighted to be invited to attend the Foundation course in culinary skills at Enderun Colleges, and have the opportunity to learn some finesse in the kitchen.

ADF+Enderun Fundamentals, Beginner Level, is a five part course that introduces knife skills and butchery. One Saturday morning in March I joined eleven other wannabe Master Chefs in a training kitchen at Enderun Colleges. We were each presented with a smart apron, a toque and a very fashionable hair net. Then we were escorted to our work stations by Chef Martin Punzalan and Chef Chen Chao Li.

The mise-en-place for each station, in the manner of all good cooking shows, had been prepared earlier, and we began the morning by examining our tools: a paring knife, a chef’s knife and a peeler. Also, three stainless steel bowls, a couple of trays and a cutting board, not to mention, from the expressions on the faces of many of my companions, a large pinch of nerves.

We were given a notebook describing our tasks, and the French terminology. Sadly any prior knowledge of French culinary terms had long since deserted my feeble brain. I stared blankly at brunoise, chiffonade and paysanne. I am quite sure I knew what they meant once…

I am proud to tell you that I got off to a flying start with the onions. This was a definite ego boost, but perhaps a little premature, as it went rapidly downhill from there. Awkwardly wielding the huge Chef’s knife, I attempted to mash garlic. Perhaps, I thought, hopelessly attempting to imitate Chef Martin, it would be easier to buy it ready crushed in a jar.  Luckily dicing eggplant and zucchini didn’t prove too taxing, but my efforts were far from perfect. I will definitely need more practice.

The carrots proved to be my Waterloo. Young people half my age deftly sliced their carrots into portions that were finely diced, perfectly cubed, paysanne-d and julienne-d with consummate skill, and then beautifully arranged in neat piles on their presentation trays. Random pieces of carrot lay scattered across my tray like the house of sticks blown down by the Big Bad Wolf. I was mortified. And truly, I am only exaggerating a tiny bit.

While I now suspect that gaining any expertise with a kitchen knife is going to take more practice – and more patience – than I probably possess, I thoroughly enjoyed the morning. My own home cooking may not require such effortless aptitude as Chef Martin, and I don’t honestly expect to start a career in a Michelin starred restaurant now, but it was nonetheless fascinating to be shown how to do it properly. At least I now know what I should expect to see on my plate at an upmarket restaurant. I also learned the difference between bouquet garni and mirepoix and sachet d’epics. Again. I just pray I will prove more capable in the butchery class.

P.S. Tthe part where we got to burn the skin off a capsicum with a butane flame was really cool.

Published in Inklings, Summer 2012.


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