Feature Stories Winter 2011 Issue

Cook’s Toolbox

By Wendy Allen | Photo By Jim Klousia 0

There’s a certain romance surrounding knives. They are one of our first prehistoric tools, and in the European Middle Ages, knives were carried on men’s belts both to be used as a weapon and as an eating utensil before the introduction of forks. (In fact, Louis XIV of France felt so threatened that he declared all pointed tip knives on the street and at the dinner table illegal and had them ground down to blunt points.) Their creation requires extreme attention and an intimate knowledge of metal to acquire just the right hardness and to grind a perfectly straight, sharp edge. They are instruments of violence, yet they can be exquisite works of art, valued by collectors and admired by anyone with an eye for design and a flowing line.

Here at Edible Madison, we often tell the stories of food and the people behind the delicious creations, but we have never talked about the instruments in between. We think it’s time to begin giving a cook’s utensils their due respect for the role they play in creating the recipes found within our pages. The knife is a crucial link between the cook and the food placed in front of us; it is quite literally the extension that allows a cook to translate raw ingredients into nourishment—both for the body and the soul. 

The Cooks and Their Knives
Three and a half years into his undergraduate studies, Dan Fox realized he was baking pies instead of studying for tests. “I’d get stressed out and want to cook, so I decided that this was what I needed to do with my life.” Now, as executive chef and assistant general manager of The Madison Club, he remembers, “We always had nice knives around when cooking with my father, and when I went to college, I got his hand-me-downs. My first knife was an 11-inch German Wusthof chef ’s knife. I named it Cecelia.

“The chef ’s knife is the number one tool in the kitchen,” he continues. “Even home cooks need to find one that fits their personality; otherwise the process can’t even begin.”

For a professional, part of the attachment to his or her knives has to do with the hard work required to afford a good knife selection and the time spent using and caring for them. That time and care, Dan says, often has a direct correlation to a cook’s connection with food and his or her attention to detail. “When a young chef comes in to interview with me, the knives they bring in definitely represent the kind of chef they are.”

Luke Zahm, executive sous chef at the Waterfront Restaurant in La Crosse, is visibly passionate about this topic and enthusiastically shows off his knife case even as he is peppered with questions from the kitchen staff, smoothly switching from serious culinary leader to excited child on show and tell day.

“When it comes to knives, it’s an extension of your soul,” says Luke. “I totally believe that. They become a part of you because you spend so much time intimately focused on preparing food with them. The knife symbolizes a cook’s vision in the kitchen.”

Part of this vision is thoughtfulness. As a cook in college in Madison, he worked under a particularly aggressive (or more kindly, zealous) chef who pounded this into his head daily—one notable experience involved a verbal lashing for using the wrong knife to cut butter pats. “I learned from her to think about every single thing I’m doing, specifically with knives because the right knife makes all the difference in the world. It allows you to minimize your waste and make your restaurant more profitable. It allows you at home to cook with joy and speed and ease because you have a sharp knife that’s ready to plow through anything you throw at it.”

Even if you don’t have a chef ’s case full of knives at home—maybe you have your one go-to blade for releasing some aggression while smashing garlic—it’s the lesson of conscious and intentional cooking that every cook, at home or otherwise, can latch onto.

I joined Macon Luhning, co-owner of Rooted Spoon Culinary and one of Edible Madison’s regular recipe contributors, at his home in Viroqua as he was cooking up some pesto chicken for his son, Camas. (It smelled so good I half-seriously threatened to eat it up myself when he didn’t dig in right away.)

For Macon, his knives hold extra special significance. “It’s the only inanimate object I have an emotional connection to. A lot of it has to do with the people, not just the knife itself. Most of the knives I’m connected to, someone gave to me.”

His main work knife was bought for him by a chef named Don Fortel, under whom Macon worked at WheatFields Bakery Café in Lawrence, Kansas, from 1999 to mid-2002. Even though the knife was a gift, Don told him, “You have to pay for it. It’s a tradition among cooks and a luck thing, and if you don’t pay for it then it’ll bring you bad luck. So you have to give me whatever coin is in your pocket.”

“I think I gave him a dime for it,” says Macon. “Ever since then, I’ve passed on the tradition whenever I’ve given someone a knife. It’s a great little bit of him, and it’s really meaningful when I can give a knife to another cook and pass that tradition on. They really get it.”

When Don passed away in 2003, Macon returned to WheatFields to take over as chef for a time. There, Don’s wife passed a lot of Don’s knives to Macon. Most of his knife case continues to hold special memories. “Some of these things that I rarely use or that are broken I still keep around because they’re pieces of him, you know? He taught me so much.”

Thinking philosophically, it’s as if knives represent the best and worst of our human race. Our hands can be unconscionably violent, yet there is incredible beauty in what we can build with them. Chefs and cooks everywhere represent this juxtaposition daily; using the same type of tool that butchered the animal for that night’s dinner, they nourish our bodies and create works of art on our plates. And that tool represents, most importantly, their connection with each other—a fellowship linked by a sharp instrument and a love for food.

On the wall of The Waterfront’s kitchen is a prep list where the first item reads, “Good Energy = Good Food.” With rising volume and much talking with his hands, Luke says, “I definitely believe our knives are part of instilling that good energy. Knowing we can blow through a project because my knives are the sharpest in the kitchen, or his knives are sharpest, you’re not thinking about how much of a chore this is. You’re thinking about what you’re doing, how to make that component of the dish the best it can be so that when you put the whole dish together it just pops.” Suddenly sheepish, he adds,

“That’s why I have knives. I don’t know what else to say.”

No need, Luke. That says it quite well.


Wisconsin Cutlery & Kitchen Supply
Shorewood Shopping Center
3236B University Ave., Madison

Knife skills classes, sharpening, and kitchen supplies. Visit their Facebook page for news and Facebookonly deals.www.facebook.com/wisconsincutlery

Orange Tree Imports
1721 Monroe St., Madison

Cooking classes and super fun, colorful and highquality kitchen supplies (Note: the website is only a sampling of the large in-store selection). For getting kids comfortable in the kitchen, check out the Curious Chef set: “Real kitchen utensils for small hands.”

Greensteel Forge
608-577-9734 / greensteelforge@yahoo.com

High quality, hand-forged knives made from reclaimed metal and knife sharpening services. See Notable Edibles, "Junk to Julienned" for more information.

The Kitchen Gallery
107 King St., Madison
608-467-6544 / stephanie@thekitchengallery.biz


Luke Zahm: “The Cat’s Paw. I’ll say it again: Cat’s Paw.” Knowing how to secure food to the cutting board before making a single cut is essential. Keep those digits intact by curling your fingers under (like a loose sign language “e”) and using your knuckles as a barrier against the knife.

Macon Luhning: “Sharp is safe; dull is dangerous.” It’s counterintuitive, but oh-so true. Dull knives require more pressure to make a cut, increasing the risk of slipping and injuries. As an equally important sub-point, always—always—pay attention to what you’re doing.

Dan Fox: “You don’t have to spend a ridiculous amount of money on a good knife.” All you need is a knife that fits your hand and that will keep a good edge. For home cooks looking for a good multi-use knife, Dan recommends an 8- or 9-inch Forschner Victorinox chef’s knife, which is a wallet-friendly $25 to $30. Pick up a honing steel in addition for around $20. Used properly, this helps keep the knife’s edge cutting smoothly between full sharpenings and extends the life of the blade.

Wendy Allen is digital editor, copy editor, and a writer for Edible Madison. She reads style guides for fun, believes stories have power, and is fascinated by the evolution of the English language—for better or worse. Her mission: to wrestle the wily comma into submission.

Comments [0]

Add Your Comment




Please enter the word you see below

* Fields Required.
Your email will not be shared.
Your website will be linked to your name.

More Articles: