I have to admit, I was intimidated to be practicing my knife skills in front of Michael Leviton, the chef/instructor for our first day of class. The owner of renowned Lumiere in Newton and Area 4 in Cambridge has a reputation for being one of the smartest, most highly respected chefs in Boston. And here I was, chopping an onion as though it was my first time and almost slicing my finger off.
The day started with a demo and lecture about knives and how to sharpen them. Leviton takes this very seriously. We learned about the differences between Western knives and Japanese (he prefers the Japanese). Western blades are typically sharpened symmetrically, making a "v"-shaped edge. The Japanese way is asymmetrical, with one side of the blade sharpened at a wider angle than the other. The advantage is, well, it's just sharper.
The chef displayed this advantage quite well on an onion (perfectly, effortlessly diced), a potato (cut into old-school tourné shapes), chives (chopped into half-milimeter rings), a tomato (the knife 'floated' through), an orange (segmented into membrane-free supremes) and plenty of carrots and celery that were neatly trimmed into planks, sticks, and cubes. During his demonstrations, he stressed the importance of taking good care of your knives. He sharpens his every day—something we'll begin to practice next week.
Once we got into the kitchen, we split up into assigned groups to test out our new knives. We diced onions, celery, fennel, parsnips, carrots, and celery root. All the while, Chef Michael was roaming around, offering tips and making adjustments on our feet positioning and knife grip. It was kind of like yoga class. "Relax your shoulders," he said. "Relax your grip and let your knife do the work".
Our knives were quite productive as we filled containers with chopped vegetables to be made into stock. The technique that Michael demonstrated for slicing an onion only involved slight tweaks to the way I normally do it. But those small adjustments made all the difference. Stooping down a bit lower to make the first parallel cuts and sliding my knife in from the heel toward the tip eliminated friction and made the job so much easier. We all practiced our skills until most of the chopped carrots, onion, celery, celery root, fennel, garlic, and parsnips went into a pot with water to be simmered into a delicate stock. The rest were saved for next week's chicken and veal stocks.
While the stock gently simmered, we finely chopped parsley, garlic, and lemon peel for gremolata. The big takeaway from that exercise was not to bruise or mash the ingredients, but to do as little damage as possible. Hashing over herbs like parsley is something I always do at home. Leviton explained that this leaves much of the flavor on the cutting board. Instead, he prefers precise, efficient cuts that leave the cell walls—and thus the flavor, more in tact. Makes sense.
As I tried not to wilt under my stifling, high-collared chef coat, I started to feel pretty confident once I got to the lemon. I removed strips of zest with the peeler, sliced them into thin juliennes, and then into a fine dice. "That's not bad," said the chef as he took a close look. From Michael Leviton, I'll take it.