ALISON STEWART, host:
With the holiday season in full swing, you may be cooking for family or friends. If you shiver at the thought of all the work a crudite platter entails or you've nearly lost a finger slicing bagels for a brunch, there's a class that might change your life. Knife skills at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, taught by Norman Weinstein, has a waitlist of up to six months, but they made room for me last Tuesday.
Mr. NORMAN WEINSTEIN (Knife Skills Instructor, Institute of Culinary Education, New York City): All right. Here's the deal. I need to know you're awake. This is a knife skills class.
STEWART: In a teaching kitchen are two large stainless-steel tables set up with food prep stations. Five men and seven women, financiers and students, urbanites and a self-described lady from the boonies of New Hampshire have five very sharp and very expensive knives in front of them.
Mr. WEINSTEIN: At your stations, you have a small chef's knife that's eight inches, yes? And then you have a longer chef's knife, 10 inches. Chef's knife identified not by the length, because there are other knives that are eight or 10 inches, but by the width - the fact that when you hold them, your knuckles will clear, right, the blade.
STEWART: For the next three hours, Chef Weinstein will guide them.
Mr. WEISNTEIN: The sound of your board or the sound of the knife on the board tells you something. Here's what you don't ever want to hear anymore.
(Soundbite of chopping)
STEWART: And in some cases scold them.
Mr. WEINSTEIN: Let this go. Let it go. Let go. Let go. Let go. Let go. Let go.
STEWART: There is some Borscht Belt humor.
Mr. WEINSTEIN: Now, the other famous student I had in class was Jimmy Stewart, and when he went from the eight to the 10-inch knife and picked that up and started, do you know what he said? He said it's a wonderful knife.
STEWART: And a chance to learn more about knives than you ever thought you needed to know.
Mr. WEINSTEIN: Notice the ratio between the heel and the top of what we call the choil, C-H-O-I-L. Who are the scrabble players here? You got a good word, right? And you'll be challenged. It's 50 points.
STEWART: Weinstein believes in good tools and good technique. He has four points he wants students to consider: Where to start the cut, how to make the cut, how much blade to use, and the motion of the knife.
What do you think of the big picture benefits of taking a basic knife skills class?
Mr. WEINSTEIN: Number one, your prep time gets cut drastically. So you can enjoy your cooking more. I mean, most people if you ask them, they'll say it takes me much longer. So I either do this when I have time. And in reality, many of the things that people do that take 25 to 30 minutes can be done in 10 or five. I think just conquering the skill to me is its own reward. Just walking out of here and saying, he showed me how to do it. I know how to do it. I know I have to practice, but I understand what he did. And to me, mastering or conquering the skill is a great joy.
STEWART: He is also out to break bad habits.
Mr. WEINSTEIN: I want you to pick up you eight-inch knife, the one that's on the board, and show me how you hold it. I see some of us are from the Lady Macbeth school of knife skills here. Let's review the grip of the knife, please. Three fingers wrapped around the handle. And more importantly, you want to keep your middle finger up against this back part here at the finger guard, keep it there. I can see already, Anita(ph), your grip is too tight.
STEWART: Some students struggle. Mischa(ph), who works in finance, is having carrot problems.
Which has been harder, celery or carrots?
MISCHA (Knife Skills Student, Institute of Culinary Education, New York City): Ah, definitely carrots.
STEWART: Why did you take this course?
MISCHA: Ah, it was a present actually.
STEWART: From whom?
MISCHA: My wife. I guess she wants me to cook faster. I don't know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
STEWART: Chef Weinstein goes from station to station trying to correct one of the most common problems, too much force, pressing down when cutting, which led to flying celery pieces and smashed tomatoes.
Mr. WEINSTEIN: Greg(ph), get your shoulders down, sir. You're trying to bludgeon that poor onion.
STEWART: He also wants to make sure there aren't any accidents, which happens occasionally, something a student named Martie(ph) has experienced.
MARTIE (Knife Skills Student, Institute of Culinary Education, New York City): I've had some bad knife cuts in my career as a home cook. And this is really remarkable. When you do it right, it's amazing. You do it right, and it's no longer a lethal - OK it is a lethal weapon, but never mind.
(Soundbite of laughter)
STEWART: Yes. Those knives are quite sharp. How sharp? Sharp enough to pass a certain test. Chef Weinstein shows his class.
Mr. WEINSTEIN: Are you ready for this? Martie, would you check and see if this is funny paper, whether I'm trying to pull one over on you.
MARTIE: It feels real.
Mr. WEINSTEIN: Feels real.
(Soundbite of paper being sliced)
Mr. WEINSTEIN: The dull knife is the one that can cut you. It can slip on the skin of an onion or a pepper, anything shiny, and it will not cut through. It will slip and maybe cut you. So, it behoveth thee. So I'm waxing Biblical, so what?
STEWART: Professional knife sharpener Norman Kornbleuth of the Broadway Panhandler store in Greenwich Village explained the problem before he started to sharpen some knives.
Mr. NORMAN KORNBLEUTH (Proprietor, Broadway Panhandler, Greenwich Village): Every time you use the knife and you cut on a cutting board, you develop microscopic burrs on the end of the knife. And if they're not attended to and removed, they will make the knife dull much sooner than necessary. So I'm going to turn on our sharpening machines. And this is at the coarsest setting.
(Soundbite of sharpening machine whirring)
Mr. KORNBLEUTH: And because of the carbon in this knife, you're going to see sparks. Most knives don't spark like that.
(Soundbite of knife being sharpened)
STEWART: How long can a good set of knives last someone?
Mr. KORNBLEUTH: I have some knives that are well over 30 years old. And I cherish them like old friends. I'm used to handling them for a long time. So with care, I think you can really hold a knife, you know, the better part of your life.
STEWART: Back at the Culinary Institute, as the class winds down, Chef Weinstein treats his students to a few wow moments, making a flower of a tomato skin.
Mr. WEINSTEIN: So this is one of the things we do in knife skills three where we do a whole bunch of decorative garnishes. Say ooh.
(Soundbite of students saying "Ooh")
Mr. WEINSTEIN: Say, Ahhh.
(Soundbite of students saying "Ahh")
STEWART: Explaining how to cut an onion without tears.
Mr. WEINSTEIN: You're not crushing. You're gliding your knife through the onion so you're not crushing the cell walls, which when you do that, you get this reaction between the sulfur and the enzymes, right, that are in these layers. And you release them into the air when you crush. If you don't crush, you don't cry. That's great. I like that. If you don't crush, you don't cry.
STEWART: By the end of the class, most students had the hang of at least one technique.
Unidentified Woman: It's just feels too easy.
Mr. WEINSTEIN: Say that again.
Unidentified Woman: It feels too easy.
Mr. WEINSTEIN: Ergo, it must be wrong, right?
Unidentified Woman: Yup.
Mr. WEINSTEIN: Yeah, I love that one. There you go.
STEWART: After three hours, many stalks of celery, diced potatoes, peeled tomatoes, and sliced grapefruits, the students left with a new joy of cooking.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.