Based in Toronto and New York City

, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

Archival posts from my former blog, Walking and Talking

My evening with knife skills maestro Norman Weinstein

I’ve been cooking since I was a kid, but until recently had only a vague idea that there was a right way and a wrong way to slice and dice. All of this changed when I took a class from knife skills expert Norman Weinstein at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in Manhattan. His workshops have been so popular that getting into one required keeping an eagle eye on class schedules and swooping down on a spot when a new series was posted.

When I at last made it to the Knife Skills 1 workshop, I was thrilled to meet the knife master in person, but crestfallen to find out that it was his second to last class at ICE; he was retiring, and would only be teaching a few professional classes at the institute after that week. He’s such a legend that he had to shoo Bon Appétit’s Barbara Fairchild, who popped in to pay homage, out of the classroom so he could start the session on time.

Feeling that I was learning from the last of the knife Mohicans, I soaked up every scrap of information, from the basics of kitchen knife construction to selection, maintenance and use. I learned that if you hone your knives on a steel after almost every use, you can minimize the need for sharpening, which will eventually wear away your knife. I also learned that honing steels wear out—when you can no longer feel the grooves along the instrument’s surface, it’s time to buy a new one.

Weinstein, whom I first encountered when I interviewed him for this WSJ story on knife sharpening services, was full of jokes, wisecracks and knife wisdom. “Never take a knife that needs sharpening to a guy driving a truck,” was one such pearl. Shoemakers and sketchy people who grind things other than knives are best avoided as well, he said. When asked what he thought of Japanese santoku knives, he said simply, “I believe in re-gifting.” [I know this is not the opinion of many chefs: my story on Korin Japanese Trading Corp. taught me this.] Weinstein believes that the complete kitchen needs only four knives: A 10” chef’s knife, a 6” utility knife, a paring knife and a scalloped slicing knife. For meat eaters, a carving knife would be a fifth addition.

Norman Weinstein's tomato peel rose.

My tomato peel rose.
It was the hands-on knife skills, though, that I found most eye-opening. I had to re-learn my grip (thumb and forefinger on the knife blade, second finger curled around the finger guard). We learned the “bagel cut,” for slicing laterally through treacherous dough fields, the “low technique” (for short stuff like celery and carrots) and the “high technique” for tall veggies, such as potatoes and melons). It’s all about using the longest knife you can (6” knives mean “you’re working far too hard,” Weinstein told us; let the weight of the knife do the work for you), relaxing the arm, using a light grip, keeping the slicing arm in constant motion and sliding more than chopping. If you’d like to learn the full Weinstein technique, tyou can order his knife skills book and DVD.

I sliced my way through stalks of celery, many carrots and several onions, but my pièce de résistance was a rose I made from a single piece of tomato skin. Perhaps I will take Knife Skills 2, although it’s not on offer at the moment, and won’t be the same without Weinstein at the helm. Happy retirement, Norman!

Hunting for traditional Japanese osechi foods at New Year

She's got the tree decorating touch