“It is never the knife’s fault.”Daniel Boulud
Every day, likely several times a day, I clean my chef’s knife. I hold the blade under running water, gripping the handle firmly in my left hand, wrapping a scouring sponge around the blade with my right and sliding it back and forth until it shines – first along the thicker spine, then flipping to repeat along the cutting edge from bolster to belly, the edge maybe ¼” from my flesh. Maybe. Every time I do this I think, “One of these times I will be distracted, I will slip, I will slice my palm…(envisioning a slowly spreading bloom of crimson)…I wonder if it will hurt?” I keep my knives sharp, honing them regularly, steeling them before every use. They slice tuna; they would/will one day slice my flesh like butter. And still I do this. I recall having these thoughts last week, and last month, and last year, and 10 years ago, and 20. And still I do this. “One of these times…”
It’s not always, hardly ever, an ominous thing. Just a passing observation. I have cut myself before, paperthin finesse, blood in the onions, the merest sliver of a fingertip. As I say, my knives are sharp – the slice is clean, almost surgical. The cuts were small, healed fairly quickly under awkward bandages and after a week or so of trouble with shirt buttons and shampoo. Beware of lemon juice. And they were rare and random accidents, been a long time since. But my cleaning method seems to court disaster, basically daring myself – like when I was 12 years old or so and my brother and I decided it would be a fine game to see who could hold a lit match closest to the fuse of an illicit brick of firecrackers without lighting it – in our bedroom, while Mom was just down the hall reading in the living room. But I am not a child of 12, and even when I first started playing with knives, I remember thinking, “This probably isn’t the way I should do this…”
We all cut ourselves more often then we note, we bruise, we scrape, we bump our head on the forgotten (open) cabinet door, we stub, a nick over the sink…a thousand little hurts.…..it’s always struck me that the French word for ‘wound’ is practically a homonym for the English antonym: blesse. To hurt/to heal.
Maybe I clean my blades the way I do because I am unwilling to let go of the immortality enjoyed by my nineteen-year-old self. Maybe it’s just a morbid curiosity, or a test that measures (keeps in check?) that same mortality – how soon will I began to fail? Maybe it’s just the frayed end of a thousand cut rope – Hell, I’ve made it this far, how bad could it be?
So I continue to scour, bolster to belly, blade against flesh, daring myself to fail.
One of these days.
Cooking is chopping. If I were to add up all the time I spend cutting, slicing, chopping, dicing, mincing, chiffonnading, julienning – and discount the time when things are actually ‘cooking’, baking, braising, searing, or resting (because, face it, that time is called ‘drinking’, or ‘cleaning’ a whole other discussion) – it would by far lay claim the lion’s share. This is what a cook does – reduce larger, unmanageable ingredients to manageable morsels, of a size and consistency our feeble homo sapien teeth and digestive tracts can manage. I regularly determine a menu based on how much chopping I’m up for on a given day. I have decent knife skills, but am by no means an expert (see above), so…it factors. I favor a 10” chef’s knife, which could be perceived as over-compensatingly large, but I find a versatile choice – I can do most all of the things I can with a smaller knife (flick seeds out of a slice of watermelon, cut the foil around the top of a wine bottle), and still manage the heavier tasks (slicing that watermelon, portioning a chicken). I can use the flat of the blade to smash garlic for peeling/mincing, or olives for pitting. The spine is a handy tenderizer. Not so good for spreading butter.
And, as intimated, sharper is better. Anyone who spends time around a kitchen will attest to this. There is a distinct pleasure in using a truly sharp, properly weighted and balanced knife. Aside from being safer (it slices vs. tears, bites where it’s supposed to and doesn’t ‘jump’), it simply gets the job done, and does things a dull knife can’t. These days, maintaining an edge is an afterthought – there are a lot of serrated, ginsu-esque blades out there. And yes, they can cut – lettuce AND tin cans – but not with the finesse, reliability, or versatility of a more traditional implement. People who cook a lot, or who do it for a living, are fanatical about their cutting tools. They learn about whetstones (whether wet whetstones or dry whetstones) Japanese water stones, Arkansas stones, diamond honing, oil and water, angle, grit, burr, steel and fire. And that is all well and good, but once upon a time there were itinerant sharpeners, tinkers, moletas, who for a few pennies would come to your kitchen back door with a peddle-bench grinding wheel and offer to put a finer point on your batterie de cuisine. And just the other day, as we exited Parc Monceau, I noticed what looked like a black English Hackney cab, but with the words “Rémouleur” (‘Grinder’), and “Affûteur de Lames” (‘Sharpener of Blades’) painted on the sides. It was an ‘Atelier Mobile’, or ‘mobile studio’ for Marius, an itinerant knife-sharpener, who apparently grinds the scissors, cleavers, and knives of everyone from Gerard Depardieu to the cuisines of La Moulin Rouge. Check out his nifty website: http://www.marius-affuteur.fr
In the small town where we live, a Rémoulerie opened a while back, called, prosaically enough, ‘La Rémoulerie’. It’s at the base of the hill leading up to the Roman Arena, which in itself is pretty cool. The proprietor is Thierry, an amiable just-past-youngish hipster bearing a more than passing resemblance to the actor Vincent Cassel with a beard. The shop is not cluttered, though it’s almost hard to focus for the array of cutlery on display: hunting knives, carving knives, utility knives, pocket knives, chisels, saws, scissors, the occasional straight edge razor. Off to one side (on top of a glass case filled with steak knives) is a griffe (claw) or crochet, which looks a bit like a medieval torture instrument with four serrated, hooked blades extending from a hand grip. It’s a tool used by the raseteurs in the Course Camarguaise, the non-lethal bull ‘fights’ which take place in the aforementioned arena – essentially a bunch of young hotshots in pristine white outfits use the crochet to cut and grab the cocarde, a ribbon tied between the horns of an irritated bull, and try to dodge and leap out of the way before they’re trampled or gored. Fun. I’ve come to have my 8’ and 10” blades sharpened, and Thierry is more than happy to oblige. He runs them across a belt grinder, a few satisfying sparks, moves to a finer grit wheel to remove the burr, and finishes off with a wire polishing brush. The whole process takes maybe five minutes for both knives. He holds up a small sheet of paper and slowly gestures through it with the larger blade, it passes without resistance, half the paper flutters to the counter. I’m suddenly somewhat ashamed of the not-quite-clean dish towel I’ve wrapped and brought them here in, but the cooking geek in me cannot wait to use those knives. I’ve heard it said you can also taste the sharpness of a blade – a sharp knife tastes of steel; a really sharp knife tastes of blood. He slides a small rectangle of paper across the glass, I assume it’s the bill, then note, no, it’s a business card, albeit oddly shaped, about 3” by 1”. I pick it up and realize I am wrong yet again – in a clever if somewhat kitschy bit of advertising, it’s a band-aide, with the shop’s logo and contact info printed on the wrapper.
“Just in case,” he smiles.
At home I slice some peppers to roast. It’s really more like laying the knife down and it just…sort of…falls through them. I seriously double check, because it feels like I might have actually missed the pepper. The same with fingerling potatoes. A duck breast prosciutto slivers away with about as much struggle as room temperature butter. I realize I’ve known squat-all about sharpening my knives for years. This familiar piece of carbon steel in my hand has become once again a thing of slight trepidation, and I find myself handling it more gingerly.
Still, it has to be cleaned, so…I hold the blade under running water, gripping the handle firmly in my left hand.
One of these days…