On Knives: A Kitchen Meditation

Staff Writer
Buying that first chef's knife was an acknowledgement that the author had accepted the life of a chef
On Knives: A Kitchen Meditation

Norman Van Aken

An assortment of Van Aken's professional cutlery. The Chinese cleaver at right once belonged to James Beard.

Norman Van Aken, a member of The Daily Meal Council, is a Florida-based chef–restaurateur (Norman's at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando), cooking teacher, and author. His most recent book is a memoir, No Experience Necessary: The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken. This is one of a series of Kitchen Meditations that Van Aken is contributing to The Daily Meal. He also writes a regular series of Kitchen Conversations for us.

I went to bed after a long day of cutting and thought back on the previous 24.

I hulled and then evenly sliced Florida strawberries in the ascending morning light, using a Japanese knife its creator might have envisioned for other tasks. My knives are an odd assortment gathered from over 40 years of cutting to make a living…and to make me happy. I don’t have a single brand. They are of various ages and temperaments — like my friends. Some are in need of the stone. I speak of my knives.

My day included a morning of chopping mirepoix for chicken stock. I severed thighs from legs and cleaver-hacked a tray of necks before setting the butchered chickens in cool water to simmer for the proscribed number of drifting hours.

Then I worked on eggplant, which required incisions into its ovoid shape before I applied a savory, umami-laden miso barbeque sauce to seethe and soak into the interior fleshy regions that beckon under that eggplant’s thin, shiny skin. I invade to create flavor.

A complex "Greek salad" was on our docket, as we work almost daily on our next cookbook in our home kitchen, where everything is cut by a team of two. This mighty salad, born in Tarpon Springs [a fishing town on Florida's west coast with a large population of Greek origin] but now in my hands, involved the coring and serration of tomatoes, the mincing of garlic, a mandoline's precisely calibrated knife edge applied to radishes, a chiffonade of various greens, the minuscule work of filleting anchovies, the matchstick cutting of beets, a brunoise of cucumbers, and so forth; we marched and cut.

I was first taught how to work with a knife by a huge chef from Philadelphia. I was a young cook in Illinois and not sure I was going to be able to handle life within a kitchen’s walls. But I was there, and if I was going to be of much use to the men who toiled around me, they knew I’d have to learn. Eddie (we all called him “Bigfateddie,” like it was all one word) was the only guy on the line I could not understand. I had better luck understanding the Korean fish cutter. A word from ‘Bigfateddie’ here and there, but that was it. Just enough to keep me trying to follow his trail — but that trail broke off under the food he was pushing into his face. His voice was very high, a Jerry Lewis–like high. His head was small and seemed to float above his towering Macy’s-Day-parade-float-size body like a helium balloon bobbing around on a stick. He wore Buddy Holly black-framed glasses and wrapped his apron around his massive middle like a sheet. The apron strings were forever coming undone and he was forever retying them, but never seemed to notice it. It was his one-man dance, his hokey-pokey. Bigfateddie was the guy who taught me how to use a French knife. I’ll always be grateful to him for that. He did this by having me slice boxes upon boxes of button mushrooms. He taught through gesture and pantomime due to that crazy shorthand language only he spoke.

When I finally made the commitment that I was accepting the life of a chef, one of the most outward signs was the purchase of my first true chef’s knife. The decision was not easy when it came to affording it. I was on a line cook’s pay and living in Key West. Only the heat is cheap in Key West. Yet my friends on that line owned their own knives and it was a true mark of meaning business when you wielded one with your initials carved into the handle or even the blade. My first, like many peoples', was a Henckels. This was long before the broader spectrum of knives both made overseas and hand-crafted here that we have nowadays. Almost without argument, Henckels was the standard bearer.

I might have been ashamed of it, had I known more, but I wrapped it in double-bound kitchen towels with butcher’s string and took it home in the basket of my aging bicycle from the Pier House each night and brought it back in the same way each morning. I’d moved beyond slicing boxes of mushrooms by then. Since I could not afford a full batterie of knives yet, I learned to do almost every task with that Henckels.

One day, somehow, and I still can’t blame anyone, it fell on the stone flooring far from my post at the char grill station — and the entire tip broke off, a full inch of it. Ruined! It may as well have been a piece of my heart that broke. Hardened old line chefs gathered around me and softly swore at my luck. Had I savagely burned my hand, that would have earned me less compassion. That would have been carelessness. This seemed a kind of treason.

A new day is in front of me again. The ancient lessons comfort me. Bigfateddie also taught me how to "shake hands’"with a knife. Those two words I understood from him. He was teaching me how to hold a knife. I have rarely spent a day without a knife since that instructional time in a kitchen in a basement in Illinois a long, long time ago.

Time cuts, too. Make it a clean cut. It is all we can strive for.

Related Links
On Toast: A Kitchen MeditationNorman Van Aken's Kitchen Conversations: Jeremiah TowerMaking Broth: A Kitchen MeditationNorman Van Aken's Kitchen Conversations: Sanford "Sandy" D'Amato