In his new book on chefs’ knives, Knife: The Culture, Craft, and Cult of the Cook’s Knife, author Tim Hayward dives into the history and making of European, Japanese, and Chinese cutlery. Around 40 different types of knives are featured, alongside interviews with makers, sellers, and collectors.
Here now, an excerpt from the book in which Hayward talks about something every cook has experienced: What happens when you cut yourself. At home, a minor cut means a rinse under the faucet and a Band-Aid; anything serious might mean a trip to the ER for stitches. But in a professional kitchen, a knife cut takes on new meaning...
EVERY ONE OF US WHO USES A KNIFE WILL, at some point, have cut themselves. To call it an “accident” seems foolish because we know it’s going to happen. Amateurs cut themselves because they don’t have enough skill but professionals cut themselves just as much because the skills they have learned mean using the knife faster and more often. There are acts of stupidity to be avoided — cutting food that’s improperly held, trying to catch a falling blade, using the knife for a purpose it was never intended, leaving a blade in the wrong place. It might even be possible to avoid getting cut altogether by buying in more pre-cut ingredients, or perhaps using food preparation gadgets and machines, laden with safety guards, cut-outs and plastered with warning notices. There are perfectly serviceable cut-proof gloves, but most cooks would rather die the Death of a Thousand Cuts than go down that route. It would detach them, they’d say, from a tactile relationship with the food.
Cuts, then, “go with the territory.”
We are only cooks; when you cut us, do we not bleed? Like everyone else we feel the initial, almost acid burn of the blade passing through skin laden with nerve endings. But then something entirely different sets in. When you ask cooks about their cuts, it’s never the pain they recall. They’ll talk about the blood. These days, when chefs get drunk, they often whip out their phones to show pictures of the latest gory flap of skin hidden under a blue plaster.* Or they’ll talk about how they dealt with it and got straight back to work.
The level of machismo involved can be foolish. In the heat of service, cooks will wrap a wound in cling film or a rubber glove and keep going — often, thereby, missing the vital time window in which a serious cut can still be viably stitched. Insane resilience in the face of an injury that would floor a civilian is one of the many unhealthy behavioral traits by which chefs continue to define themselves.† Chefs often speak of cauterizing a cut on the hotplate and continuing to work.‡
From outside the professional kitchen, this kind of behavior looks absurd. It is counterintuitive to worsen a wound rather than immediately ameliorating it, and yet, as we build relationships with our own knives, even those of us who cook for fun rather than a profession begin to change our attitude.
A key part of learning to sharpen a knife is testing the edge. In the beginning you cut newspaper to check that you’ve got a good edge but pretty soon you find yourself doing what the pros do, placing your thumb on the spine of the knife and feeling the edge with the balls of three fingers. Initially, it’s terrifying. Most of your mental faculties, for very sensible reasons, are working to make you withdraw your body from the threat. Yet the feeling of control as you test the razor edge — just catching in the cornified outer layers of skin, never penetrating, the microscopic irregularities scratching against the loops and whorls of your fingerprint — is that of almost literally “dancing on the edge.”
Even now, as you read this, I’m prepared to bet that you’re looking at the scars on your own hands. Fading traces of thin white lines, a knotty little cicatrice where a slipped knife caught the nail. Oddly I’m looking at a place on my left hand where I once suffered a monstrous slash — a proper A&E job — and I realize it’s healed without trace. I feel robbed. All that mess and nothing to show for it.
To own, love and properly use a knife is to feel that you’ve overcome your fear of it, learned to master it, yet it has lost none of its potency in the transaction. The cut becomes a symbol of the delicate line you’ve walked. For all the times you have taken your knife in your hand and it worked for you beautifully it is still capable of turning on you. In other parts of our lives we usually correct, avoid or dispose of things that hurt us but in this sense our relationship with the knife is like the one we have with a particularly favored or thoroughbred pet. It’s okay if it occasionally bites or kicks. It shows spirit… it’s how it is.
* Blue, or “disclosing” plasters are used in kitchens so they can be easily spotted if they drop off into food. In large factories they also have metal tape woven through them, like the strip in a banknote, so they can be picked up by metal detectors.
† In Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell is famously baffled by the kitchen obsession with physical “hardness,” with being, as the slang of the time had it, “d.brouillard.”
‡ I used to believe this was a myth but I’ve now seen it happen enough times to know it’s horribly true.
Republished from Knife: The Culture, Craft, and Cult of the Cook’s Knife, with permission of Quadrille Publishing (April 4, 2017)