In this week’s episode of Dear Test Kitchen, legendary chef Jacques Pépin—author of dozens of bestselling cookbooks and winner of 24 James Beard Awards—joins our Test Kitchen Director Josh Cohen to teach a class on...drumroll, please...
And even Josh, a professionally trained chef, learned a handful of useful tricks. As Jacques says, “If you keep your mind open, then you’ll always learn something.”
Here are five of the most important takeaways from Jacques’s course:
1. Pay more attention to your non-dominant hand.
Here’s how to position your hands while cutting: With your dominant hand, hold the knife not at the base, but right where the blade meets the handle (or where the center of the knife’s weight is). According to Jacques, this hand is “just a dummy.” The other hand, on the other hand (sorry), “orders everything around.” Which is to say: It guides where your knife goes and determines the size of each cut.
2. Speaking of your non-dominant hand…
Don’t forget to tuck in those fingers to keep them safe while chopping: Your thumb and pinky should go behind the other three fingers, which, when curled into a knuckle, will be nice and protected as you chop, chop, chop.
3. Three is the perfect number.
“I probably have about 300 [knives] at home,” Jacques says, but even he admits that you only really need these three:
An 8-inch chef’s knife for everyday chopping (e.g., chopping onions and herbs).
A paring knife for all of the little things (e.g., peeling fruits and vegetables).
A thinner, longer knife, “the one in between,” for other all-purpose things.
4. What most people think of as a knife sharpener doesn’t actually sharpen a knife.
The blade edge of your knife is made of “teeth.” Cutting, over time, makes these individual teeth go “out of whack” (Jacques’s words). To realign them, use a honing steel (one of those long, blunt, sword-looking things). Don’t forget to apply pressure while pressing the blade against the steel and, in one single motion, run the entire edge of the knife from top to bottom.
5. Adjust your motion based on what you’re cutting.
My number-one takeaway from Jacques’s knife skills class is that each ingredient in the kitchen requires not just a different knife, but also a different motion. Watch the video above to see exactly how Jacques peels and chops all of these things:
(And don’t miss his tutorial for how to make a flower garnish out of tomato skin.)
Eric Kim is a senior editor at Food52, where his solo dining column, Table for One, runs Friday mornings. Formerly the managing editor at Food Network and a PhD candidate in literature at Columbia University, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.