December 28, 2010

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!

December 23, 2010

She's got the tree decorating touch

Every year I’ve admired our building’s Christmas tree, and the resident who decorates it so perfectly. This year, I learned, her name is Lynne Block, and she’s been beautifying our lobby for 15 years now. For 14 of those years, she also helped decorate a more famous tree: the 18th-century Neapolitan extravaganza at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Although a bookkeeper by trade, Lynne makes religious shrines out of sardine tins and has shown them at several galleries. She came by her Met tree-trimming gig through a friend, the granddaughter of Loretta Hines Howard, the benefactor who donated her collection of angels and crèche figures to the museum. Installed annually in the museum’s Medieval Sculpture Hall, the tree and its decorations have become a major holiday attraction. Lynne’s friend, knowing Lynne had a “delicate touch,” asked her to help with the decorating. She was so good at it that she returned year after year, eventually taking on the job of keeping inventory of the thousands of components of the tableau and making sure the job was on schedule.

“We had 15 working days to get the tree installed, so I would keep track of where we are on the job. I’m a very organized person, so that was one of the things I did bring to the job,” Lynne says modestly.

“I don’t do it anymore because my knees kind of gave out,” Lynne told me. “The slate floors are very hard on them.” When I commented that perhaps her Met experience is why our building’s tree looks so beautiful every year, Lynne said the experience didn’t hurt, but that the Met tree is of a different order of magnitude. Each angel on the 25-foot-tall tree has to have its own little spotlight. Decorating it involves using cherry pickers, electricians and riggers. Lynne helped decorate the tree and the landscape that spreads across the floor all around the tree. “Our tree,” she added of our lobby version, “is much more of a spontaneous emission.”

Lynne did buy a number of our tree ornaments at the Met as well as at the Metropolitan Opera gift store. The Fabergé egg reproductions, the realistic looking clip-on birds and the snowflake ornaments are from the museum; a set of jewel-toned spheres traced with lacy gold filament are from the Met Opera store. Lynne needs to stockpile them because accidents do happen in an apartment building lobby. “One time a UPS guy came in and leaned this big box against the pillar, and it knocked about five or six things off,” she recounts. “That’s why I watch the sales; we need to have a supply so we can replace stuff.”

The ornaments Lynne loves most, though, are the ones that have a history tied to our building. One resident was in the ornament business, so he donated some for the tree. “When one of the little old ladies in the building died, her family gave us some of her ornaments,” Lynne says. “The history of the building is in the tree.”

Knowing all this makes the tree even more special to me, spontaneous emission or not. Merry Christmas to all!