Ask Chef Emily: Knife Skills

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Photo c/o Truffles & Trifles

Does it really matter how I cut a carrot? If it says “on the bias,” is that fancy chef-speak to try to make something fancier than it is? Can’t I just cut the carrot in coins?

–Genevieve, Andrew, & Sean, at a dinner party

This question comes up so frequently for me — out in the wild. The one of knife skills, in some form or another: does it really matter? Brace yourself for the short answer: of course not. Whether you cut a carrot in a circle or on a 45º angle matters none to the turning of the Earth and the phases of the moon. But for the purposes of philosophical contemplation, let’s think a little more deeply, beyond just pure function.

The recipe at hand called for cooking the carrot with some diced onions as the aromatic base for a white bean and sausage dish that my friend Sean was cooking for a dinner party. It was posited that the increased surface area created by cutting the carrot on the bias would create more opportunity for caramelization, which is true, assuming the conditions are right for caramelization to occur: high heat, low moisture, adequate fat, minimal stirring.

More importantly:

As the chef, you are responsible for the experience the diner has with the dish, starting with how you choose to cut the carrot. Think into the future when the person who is eating the dish (which very well may just be you) and imagine what experience you want them to have. Know this before you make any cuts at all. Nothing is more frustrating than hacking up an onion then looking down at the pile and thinking, ‘those pieces are too big,’ and then spending extra time and energy running the knife back and forth through the pile until some acceptable (albeit uneven and unintentional) pile is created.

To be intentional means to consider this pile before cutting.

Visual appeal is the first sense engaged, so does it look “good” in the bowl and on the end of the fork? Objective I know, but like many slippery definitions, you know it when you see it. Imagine your reaction if a bowl of sausage and white beans was plated up with a whole carrot in the mix. Ridiculous, right? Who would do that?! So the decision is already being made, your work is to become intentional with your choices.

Next, are the pieces unwieldy or do they sit nicely on the end of the fork without falling off and splattering or dribbling hot food down the diner’s chin? My culinary instructor Chef Allen would invite the fictional Mrs. Farquar to our classes and our goal, wielding the knives was to not make invisible Mrs. Farquar open her mouth like a horse at a cocktail party.

These are the basic requirements. You make the cutting decisions and somewhere between putting the carrot in whole and brunoise into oblivion will be your choice.

After that, how do you want your diner to feel? Investing the time in a bias cut (a term borrowed from the garment industry, referring to cutting a piece of fabric 45º to the seam) will make someone think (consciously or not) ooh! fancy! And who doesn’t want to be made to feel fancy and considered?

Could you cut just coins (aka a paesan pr. pie-ZAHN)? Absolutely. But by that logic, you can wear sweatpants and slippers to the airport, too, and no self-respecting adult would do that. There’s an opportunity at every meal to create a pleasurable experience and not just provide calories. So caramelization + not falling off fork + ooh! fancy feelings = bias cut.

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