Part I Basics with the chef knife

I teach a lot of cooking classes. Without fail, at some point early on in the class, the following scenario transpires:

I pick up my chef knife and mindlessly chop something. Maybe I just roughly chop up some vegetables or possibly reduce an onion to a finely minced mass. I have been doing it for years. . The knife feels comfortably familiar in my hand. My chef knife and I are and have been good friends for a long time. My left hand works in rhythm with the knife as it guides each cut. It's no big deal.

Or is it? As I am chopping, the class becomes increasingly quiet. I feel their eyes watching me more and more intensely. It becomes almost too quiet, until someone says something like, "He makes it look so easy." With that, everyone chimes in with similar comments or little laughs. For a brief moment, I feel like Michael Jordan slam dunking the ball before his adoring crowd. But cutting with a knife as the pros do is really not that difficult, unlike Jordan's famed basketball moves.

In every class I teach (with the exception of professional classes where such skills are assumed) I always find it helpful to take a step back from whatever preparation I am demonstrating, and show how to effectively and speedily use a knife without chopping off fingers. It is a skill that literally can be mastered by everyone. It is not magic. It will perhaps feel a bit awkward at first, but with time, patience, and practice will become second nature. I guarantee that it will make your cooking much more enjoyable!!

First things first--the knife hand:
Before doing any cutting, we need to hold the knife properly. There are 2 accepted ways to hold the knife:
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I personally believe that (fig. 1) demonstrates the best way to hold a chef knife. In figure 1, the thumb and forefinger grip the blade just on the other side of the handle. This gives a solid grip on the knife thus resulting in better control and increased power. Be sure that the hand that grips the knife is always dry as knives can slip dangerously out of wet hands! (For more information about knives themselves take a look at a past article featured on ChefTalk called Knife Basics),

Time for the other hand:
While the knife hand is important, both hands work in tandem when cutting. There are 2 essential rules for the non-knife or guiding hand.
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First, the fingers must be curled under so that the finger tips are protected. (fig.3 ) This undoubtedly will feel a bit uncomfortable at first. With time it will grow on you. Second, the small finger and thumb need to be behind the index and middle finger so as to protect them. The item that you are cutting is held with the small finger and thumb. (fig.4 )

Let's put it together:
We now know what each hand does separately. The next step is to coordinate both hands to work effectively together. First, hold the product firmly in the guiding hand, complete with fingers safely curled under. Next, the knife needs to actually touch the middle or index finger of the guiding hand.
[table][tr][td]fig 5.[/td][/tr][tr][td]/imgs/articles/knife/fig5.jpg[/td][/tr][/table]
(fig.5) This may seem unsafe, but is paradoxically, crucial to knife safety and cutting accuracy. The reason that this is safe is that since the knife is touching the guiding hand, we know exactly where the knife is and can be assured that it will not come down on unsuspecting fingers. The knife\hand contact is also essential because the guiding hand guides the size of each cut. Two hands working effectively together increase knife speed and exactness of the knife cuts. As each cut is made, the guiding hand slides slightly backward and stops where the next cut is to be. Knife/hand contact is made once again and the next cut is executed.
[table][tr][td]fig 6.[/td][td]fig 7.[/td][/tr][tr][td]/imgs/articles/knife/fig6.jpg[/td][td]/imgs/articles/knife/fig7.jpg[/td][/tr][tr][td]fig 8.[/td][/tr][tr][td]/imgs/articles/knife/fig8.jpg[/td][/tr][/table]
Aside from how the 2 hands interact, the actual knife stroke is very important to properly using a chef knife. Each knife has a different stroke associated with it. The most common way of using a chef knife is to cut down and forward simultaneously (fig.6) (fig.7) (fig.8).

With these basics, the next most important step is to practice and practice and practice. Take it slowly at first and then slowly increase speed as you feel comfortable doing so. Don't initially focus on speed. Speed will come as the technique is mastered. In part 2, we will explore other uses for the chef knife.