Tara's Food Notebook

Sharpening My Knife Skills at the CIA

Unlearning bad habits

Does your kitchen staff know knife skills?

"You're doing that backwards." I don't know what kind of feedback on my knife skills I thought I would get, but it wasn't that! There I was, hovering over a big cutting board in the kitchen of Culinary Institute of America's San Antonio campus with a very smart, very patient chef instructor, Chef Mark Ainsworth, PCIII, CEC and Professor of Culinary at the CIA. 
 
We were both there as part of the the annual “Getting Back to Your Roots Symposium,” a three-day event, sponsored by Schwan's Food Service, Inc., that brings K-12 foodservice leaders from across the country together to talk and learn about everything from menu creation to nutrition guidelines to marketing to kids. Read more about the program here.

Since I'm left handed, I've always had doubts that I was doing things correctly when it comes to knife skills…but…really? Backwards? It wasn't a left-hander thing, I was just habitually dragging the knife back towards myself instead of out. The chef said it was "European," which I was encouraged by: at least it was…something.
 
So I set out to learn it the right way. When you see the video of me, I look like I'm a cavewoman who's never used a knife before! And I'm a really competent home cook, I swear. If I had been cutting "my way," the way that I know and trust, you would've seen me chopping like a normal person. 
 
But I was trying to un-learn my bad habits, something that takes you right out of your comfort zone.
 
During this three-day experience in Texas, I met some amazing K-12 food pros who are doing their best to make meals for kids that meet requirements, budgets and picky-kid-tastebud specifications. Sometimes their staff can undermine their efforts with less-than-efficient practices in the kitchen.
 
That school cook that's been there 40 years and cuts things in the palm of her hand with a dull, serrated knife? How are you going to get her to unlearn that when it's been working pretty well since before you were born? Just one of the challenge faced by K-12 executive chefs, managers and directors. 
 
"How do you undo bad habits?" Ainsworth asked the class during a knife skills demo. "The staff may be comfortable cutting a cucumber with a paring knife."
 
There's no one-size-fits-all answer, as is the case with many issues of K-12 foodservice, but the best bet seems to be elevating the kitchen staff: providing training on basics like knife skills, even if much of the product that comes through is frozen and pre-cut. Getting the message across that professionalism is expected in the kitchen, and that the final result will be better for everybody.
 
As for me, I started practicing as soon as I got home, and while I'm not there yet, I'm determined to never waste anything that a true chef can teach me in the kitchen!

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Tara Fitzpatrick

Tara Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Food Management and has been a full time staff editor since 2008. She covers food, culinary and menu trends. Favorite food? “Lox on a bagel....
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