Thursday, June 25, 2009

Controlling your knife: a guide to consistant knife cuts

Contributed by Nathan Dunavant, Le Cordon Bleu St. Louis

For any knife skills exercise, each student should have a well-made (balanced) forged, high-carbon, stainless steal knife. Yet before they even begin to practice basic slicing techniques, I like to teach my students three points of control and proper positioning.

The first thing I have my students do is place their cutting boards on a nonslip mat or simply some moistened paper towels to keep the cutting board from sliding across the table. Next, I have them place the cutting board a finger-tips length away from the edge of the table (pictured right); this will help bring the foods that they're cutting closer to them and make for a more natural cut.

I then tell my students to stand with both feet on the ground about shoulders length apart for a good sturdy base. Next, I instruct them to "step up to the plate" and actually have the
ir hips parallel to and touching the edge of the table, again bringing them closer to the food. The next step is usually hard for most new students to grasp: I tell them to "relax" their shoulders and drop their elbows like they have weights in them. This relaxed elbow position allows the person wielding the knife to perform slicing or cutting motions more naturally.

Now we get to the knife part. By placing the tip of your index finger in between the heal and the bolster of the knife, you should be able to find the knife’s center of gravity (pictured left). By leaving the tip of your index finger on this point on the knife and “pinching” together your thumb and index finger you will have control of the knife's center of gravity.

Next, you need to turn your hand over and let the spine of the knife rest in the crook of your index finger's second knuckle. With the three remaining finger tips gently tuck the knife's handle against the base of your thumb pad. Do not push the handle into your hand, simple cradle the knife. Now when you turn your hand over you should notice that the knife follows your arm in a straight line from your elbow to the tip of your knife (pictured right). This technique will put the knife and your arm in a comfortable position that will act as a pendulum, enabling you to cut in a strait line to the same point on your cutting board consistently.

In your relaxed state, you should find yourself holding the knife across the cutting board at a 45 degree angle (pictured left). The second point of control is keeping the knife in contact with the cutting board via the tip end of your knife's cutting edge, though not the tip itself. When your knife comes off the board you loose control, and where it makes contact again--the board, the food or your hand--is now up to the knife and not to you. Control is key. Without control you will become more and more likely to force the knife, and when a knife is forced, things usually end up with the knife on the winning side. This is the same reason a dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp one: A dull knife is more likely to be forced, and when a knife is forced you lose control and end up cutting something you weren't looking to cut.

Now, for the same reason that a tricycle is more stable than a bicycle, three points of control are more stable than two. The third point of control when cutting is your other hand; when properly positioned, it acts as a stabilizer for the food and as a guide and stabilizer for the knife. Using what most chef’s call the "claw" method (think of making a scary tiger claw with your hand while telling a story to a child; pictured right), you point all your fingers and thumb away from the knife's cutting edge and use the top of your index and middle finger--not the tips--to hold foods down while using the tops of your fingernails on your ring, pinky and thumb to guide the food towards the knife.

Use the planes in between your second and third knuckles on your index and middle fingers to support and guide you knife strokes. Make sure that you spread apart your index and middle fingers while doing this, so that when your control hand is in contact with your knife you can maintain a 90 degree angle on your foods (pictured left). Ready to cut something? Well, there's still a little bit more before I’m ready to "cut" you loose.

Let's say you have a 10-inch cutting edge on your knife. For the initial slice, you will use the half of the knife (those 5 inches) that lay in the middle of the blade (pictured right) and the rest of the cutting edge in the follow through cut. Letting the knife do the work--literally, let the weight of the knife guide it through your food. Don't push down. I know the knife is sharp enough to push down through most foods, but by doing that, you do two things that you don't want to do: First, you'll be forcing the knife (and thus, losing control); and second, you'll be putting pressure on your wrist that will result in crooked cuts.

When you have 5 inches of the cutting edge through your food, the heel of the knife should be in contact with the board, continue your forward motion with the remaining 2 1/2 inches for your follow though cut (pictured left). As you cut, remember the three points of control: (1) holding the knife properly, (2) maintaining contact with the cutting board and (3) using your control hand. Also, mind your stance--keeps hips squared and stay relaxed. Using these methods and techniques, I have been successful in teaching hundreds of students how to properly, consistently and efficiently produce the classic knife cuts that are the basis for professionally cooked and prepared foods.

CIA awards its "Cream of the Crop" scholarships

The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) has awarded its "Cream of the Crop" scholarships for summer and early fall 2009. Seven aspiring culinarians who begin their CIA studies between July and September earned merit scholarships to the college based on their leadership skills and academic record.

Recipients earn $5,000, which is renewable for each year of study at the CIA provided they maintain at least a 3.2 grade point average (GPA). The latest scholarship winners are:
  • Kira Bassingthwaight of Missoula, Mont.--Ms. Bassingthwaight is graduating from Hellgate High School with a 3.8 GPA. She was captain of the school's cross country team and a member of the Link Crew that helped freshmen transition to high school.
  • Steven Doucakis of Londonderry, N.H.--Mr. Doucakis graduates from Londonderry High School with a 3.5 GPA. He is a member of the music honor society and founder of his school's marching band. Outside of school, Steven created a program at his church to bring baked goods during the holidays to families who recently lost a loved one.
  • Allison Fortin of Spencerport, N.Y.--Ms. Fortin graduates from Spencerport High School with a 3.7 GPA. She is a member of the National Honor Society (NHS) and French Club, a peer tutor and a volunteer for many charitable organizations in her community.
  • Eric Jeffay of Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.--Mr. Jeffay finishes his studies at Briarcliff High School with a 3.9 GPA. He was the founder and president of his school's Culinary Club and a member of both NHS and the National Math Honor Society. Eric was also captain of the varsity swim team.
  • Brighid Lee-Egan of Summit, N.J.--Ms. Lee-Egan graduates from Summit High School with 3.9 GPA. She was a member of the volleyball team and won the Award of Excellence for Family and Consumer Science. Brighid is active in her community as a Girl Scout, counselor at Comfort Zone Camp, and volunteer with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
  • Michael Shinholt of Eldersburg, Md.--Mr. Shinholt is graduating from Century High School with a 3.9 GPA. A member of the football and baseball teams, he was also a member of the Young Life Club and culinary arts program at his school. Michael has volunteered for neighborhood fund-raisers and served as an umpire in a local baseball league.
  • Molly Winn of Tyngsboro, Maine.--Ms. Winn completes her studies at Tyngsboro High School with a 3.6 GPA. She was a member of the theater program, chorus and dance team at her school. Molly also taught Sunday School at her church.
"These seven outstanding young men and women rose to the top of a very qualified applicant pool to earn their scholarships," said CIA vice president of enrollment management Drusilla Blackman in a press release. "They join more than 100 other successful up-and-coming culinarians in the last 10 years whom the CIA has been proud to support through the Cream of the Crop Scholarship."

All seven students will be pursuing bachelor's degrees from the CIA in either culinary arts management or baking and pastry arts management. The CIA's Cream of the Crop scholarships are awarded to 10 worthy recipients over the course of each academic year.