The Mirepoix Triathlon

July 31, 2012

For the next two weeks, we're hosting our own Summer Food Fights on FOOD52 -- come play along! Big prizes await.

Today: Merrill and Amanda Li face off in a battle for the smallest brunoise, and the going gets tough.

Shop the Story

Many of us at FOOD52 have attended cooking school in one way or another, but two from our team -- our co-founder Merrill and our developer Amanda Li -- have a French culinary education. France, after all, stands for everything about cooking that's precise, that's traditional, that's complicated and fancy and difficult. Why cook at all, it seems like French cuisine is always telling us, if you're not going to cook right? Even the deceptively simple dishes, your steak-frites and your pots de crème, are actually devlishly difficult to get right.

When we decided to challenge Merrill and Amanda Li to a classic technique faceoff, we were left wondering (a bit sadistically, I'll admit) what culinary skill they should exhibit. Would we give each a whole fish to fillet? A chicken to debone? A competition for the clearest, most unblemished consommé or the beefiest boeuf Bourguignon?

No, no, we decided to skew far more elemental than that: any trained cook is only as good as her knife skills, n'est-ce pas? And so we set our French-trained chefs to brunoise the perfect mirepoix of onion, celery, and carrot: a task so simple that it could only be really, really hard.

The results shocked us -- there were some tense moments of sheer Olympian glory. Today we present you with the results, plus color commentary from yours truly. Ooh la la, we think you'll be surprised.

Amanda Li
With the ink on her degree from the French Culinary Institute still drying -- she graduated her program with flying colors just a few weeks ago -- Amanda Li was cool and confident in her knife skills. (And she brought her own knife to boot!)

No tears here: she made quick work of the allium as she minced it into tiny bits -- just like we laid out in How to Chop an Onion (but much, much faster).

You know the drill: first in half, then the horizontal cuts.

With the first half obliterated, it's on to the next one.

An A+ mince! Or a 10.0. Or a touchdown?

The very shape of a celery stalk is enough to give you the chills: that uneven shape! Those stringy ribs! No matter: Amanda Li set about carving each celery stalk into level planks that she cut up into cubes faster that you could sing La Marseillaise.

Take a good look: the celery isn't going to look this recognizable for long.

Amanda Li tames the celery into planks -- a task almost as difficult as crossing Russia in winter.

Planks become matchsticks, and matchsticks become the mythic brunoise.

Knobbly, stringy celery: no more.

They're round, they taper off, they roll all over the place, and they're basically the opposite of what you would want when it comes to cutting things into uniform cubes. With a soft sigh and a thin sheen of sweat beading on her brow, Amanda Li set to processing the carrots.

Amanda, careful, your finger! Oh wait, you were using it to measure.

With two quick cuts, three dominos of carrot: just like that.
Working tirelessly, Amanda Li produced a mountain of carrot sticks, except these carrot sticks aren't meant for your school lunch. And once more: each bundle of sticks was reduced to eighth-inch cubes. In fact, let's zoom in a little.

Magnified at 100x, here's the instant replay.

The Results

So far, the playing field is looking pretty rough for Merrill. These tricolored cubes -- perfect for even sauteeing, simmering, or anything else -- get great marks.

Quelle dommage, Merrill: it's time to show us what you've got.

With her culinary school days long behind her, Merrill has the benefit of years-long experience in the real world. But does she have the right stuff to face up to her fellow chef Francaise?

Unlike Amanda Li, Merrill did not bring her own knife. In fact, she came armed with...a saw? Get ready, people, we could be here for a while. But in a surprise move that shocked the live tournament audience, Merrill's chopped onion came out impressively small, if a little pungent.

Basically, Merrill brought a saw to a knife fight.

Ergonomic and with a collapsible blade, we really admire Merrill's trendsetting in such a high-stakes competition. This innovative "hacking" technique has us running into the kitchen to experiment -- who knew?

With an impressively miniscule brunoise of onion, Merrill is on the way to meeting Amanda Li's high score.

With the entrance of the next vegetable event, Merrill tossed aside her saw, surprising us once again. Zut alors, what would she think of next? The answer turned out to be nothing we would have imagined.

You've seen this before: use a vegetable peeler to flatten the curved stalks.

Merrill does a commendable job of shaving the celery. How thorough!

And wow! A mezzaluna! We never saw this coming. It takes a true master to perfectly brunoise celery with a two-handled blade, but Merrill has achieved it.

With two events behind her, Merrill brushed aside those tiny, precisely-sized cubes of onion and celery and turned her attention to carrots. With a borrowed knife and a trusty tape measure, she set off to reduce her carrots to smithereens.

Not content to use her hand as a measurement, Merrill used a tape measure for mathematic precision.

Pulling out all the stops, Merrill uses a traditional French robot ménager to brunoise the carrots. Only an expert would dare!

Enlarged here for display purposes, these carrot cubes are identically sized and barely visible to the naked eye.

The Results

With grace, elegance, and above all, speed, Merrill's French training came through in her tête-à-tête with Amanda Li. The judges have spoken: short of calling a tiebreaking race, we're forced to call this triathlon a dead heat. Congratulations and félicitations to our two winners!

Interested in competing? Practice for the 2016 Mirepoix triathlon begin this winter, with official trials taking place next summer. Until then: Liberté, égalité, haché!

Order now

A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

Order now

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • LauriL
  • Kitchen Butterfly
    Kitchen Butterfly
  • darksideofthespoon
  • Michael Hoffman
    Michael Hoffman
  • Greenstuff
I'm Nozlee Samadzadeh, a writer, editor, farmer, developer, and passionate home cook. Growing up Iranian in Oklahoma, working on a small-scale organic farm, and cooking on a budget all influence the way I cook -- herbed rice dishes, chicken fried steak, heirloom tomato salad, and simple poached eggs all make appearances on my bright blue kitchen table. I love to eat kimchi (homemade!) straight from the jar and I eat cake for breakfast.


LauriL August 1, 2012
Quite entertaining you funny folks!
Kitchen B. August 1, 2012
So I may never be involved in a brunoise contest but I have learned so much from you Amanda, be honest as a mum with 3 kids, I tend to take on the 'Merrill approach' (that has a nice ring to it, can it become a commonly used phrase?). I love the way you tackled the celery most of all. Now I can imagine myself warming to the green stalks, when they are broken down into manageable bites. Well done, And the photos are absolutely gorgeous.
darksideofthespoon July 31, 2012
Amanda, your brunoise is a work of art. So beautiful!

Merrill, yours is a testament to how quickly you need to move with a little baby. I have a mini food processor that gets a lot of use when my 4 month old is napping.
Michael H. July 31, 2012
I am in awe of people who can accurately brunoise a carrot.

I have respectful fear of people who use pocket-sized electric saws to chop onions.
Greenstuff July 31, 2012
We can certainly tell that Merrill's been affected by the challenges of new motherhood! A time to relax on precision and look for ways to speed up the process. (Great job, Amanda Li.)
Nozlee S. July 31, 2012
Motherhood and little Clara have nothing to do with it! Merrill's was merely showcasing her Olympian talents, just like Amanda Li was.
Kitchen B. August 1, 2012
So we know who got the gold then ? :-). Wink, wink, Amanda!
Amanda L. July 31, 2012
hwhAAAAATTTT!? a TIE?!?! blood, sweat and tears went into that brunoise (...mostly figuratively). M probably whooped me on speed, but those precious hours of painstaking taillage I will never forget =P