Cutting into knife skills: How to overcome fear and avoid injury



Amid the chaos of this atypical Thursday class, one student is calmly, but quickly, chopping away. She sets down her knife next to a large, green cutting board as other students brush past her, carrying baked chicken, proofed dough, and dirty dishes.

Encompassing the cutting board is a wasteland of utensils, measuring cups and even more sharp, glinting cutlery. On top of the board is a neatly chopped onion. The student’s attempt at cutting the onion was successful — her training kicked in, allowing her to focus on the task at hand. But if she had slipped up, she would have cut more than her ingredient.

The student’s professor, Shelly Owens, knows this outcome all to well. “I’ve seen countless injuries,” Owens said, “some have been in the professional kitchen and others have been in the classroom.”

Owens started teaching in 1996 at one of the most revered culinary schools in the country, Johnson & Wales. Now, she is the Director of Culinary Arts for the Metropolitan State College of Denver’s department of Hospitality, Tourism and Events. Owens main job is to teach her restaurant management students about what it means to work in a kitchen.

Currently, Owens class is busy experimenting with recipes for a large banquet dinner that is taking place near the end of March.

Around this time, mayhem ensues as the students split off into smaller groups and begin perfecting their dishes. In such a high stress environment, Owens understands that mistakes are bound to happen, but she believes that the best thing students can do is to assess any wounds and keep at it. “If you get a cut, wash up, bandage yourself, put on a glove and keep chopping,” Owens said.

Alan Hubbard agrees with Owens’ “never say die” mentality. “I’d say that, 95 percent of the time, the cut is going to be something that will heal before your shift is over. Something that will stop bleeding and look like a little paper cut,” Hubbard said.

As a longtime pantry chef and line cook at The Curtis Hotel’s ground floor restaurant, The Corner Office, Alan Hubbard has seen his share of blood.

In the midst of a rush, Hubbard saw one of his fellow pantry chefs, Kelsey Branch, cut the tip of her finger with a knife. He even recalls a line cook’s bout with an industrial meat slicer and the stitches that ensued. But he can’t forget his own momentary lapse of judgment — one where he scraped off his fingertips with a mandolin slicer. Of course, experiencing such an injury didn’t quell Hubbard’s passion for cooking.

“When I was living with my Dad; he never cooked. So I think that was sort of what drew me to cooking and eating really good food, was that it was missing,” Hubbard said, noting that, for him, cooking is, “a whole, brand new world. I’m wholly unexposed to it and I can approach it with child-like wonder.”

Several years back, Hubbard enrolled in the Cook Street School of Culinary Arts in Denver where he was exposed to many classical dishes, sauces and components. In turn, he learned a lot of the theory behind using ingredients. After graduating, he started working at The Corner Office.

Although Owens and Hubbard come from well-educated, professional backgrounds, they both concur that using a knife can be intimidating. Meanwhile, it is one of the most essential skills a cook can have. To get over any initial fear and start learning, a cook must be as “hands-on” as possible and, obviously, they should take their time.

“It’s worth spending some time, if you’ve never worked with a product before, to figure out the best way to work with it,” Hubbard said. “Then, make it a habit of doing it that way every time; be very deliberate in your approach.”

At the beginning of every semester, Owens gives her students a comprehensive, “how to” lesson on knife safety. “We start out slowly in class,” Owens said. “We teach how to handle a knife, what you should and should not do with a knife — even how to walk with a knife. Then we practice, practice, practice.”

While patience and practice is key, there are a few tips that professionals and at-home cooks should remember to avoid injury and remain efficient.

Sharp tips

First, make sure your work area — the place where you’re setting your cutting board — is clean and clear of any liquid or slippery substances.

Another way to help the board stay secure is to place a wet paper towel underneath it. A rag or dishtowel is less desirable because — depending on how slippery your main surface is — a rag can end up sliding around under your board.

“Squaring off” vegetables allows for easier cuts. For instance, if you take one vertical slice off each side of a potato, you can stand it up and cut into it without having it roll around on your board.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but you should never use your whole hand to grip a product. Instead, make a sort of claw out of your pointer, middle and ring fingers. Then, use your fingertips to hold down your ingredient. This way, if you go too fast and cut yourself, you’ll only be scraping at your knuckles or the front of your fingers.

Lastly, always use a sharp knife. According to Hubbard, “A dull knife requires more force. It’s harder to get through a tomato skin than it is your thumb skin. If you have a sharp knife and you get to your thumb skin, there’s not going to be that much force behind it.” Even Owens has noticed her students adjusting their techniques when using a dull knife and it can end badly.

Why they cut

Aside from all these of tips, one way to avoid injury is to never cut up anything. However, if cooks just threw bulk ingredients in a pot and called it “done,” food would never be as magical.

Owens explains that, “Learning knife cuts serves several purposes. We eat with our eyes first. How a dish looks will be the first impression. If it’s not pretty, we might move on. Second, we want everything in the recipe to cook at the same time.”

That last rule also applies to the essence of cooking: taste. Cutting products into uniform pieces allows for uniform flavor. If there is too much of one ingredient, it will overpower and ruin the harmony of a dish.

Even stew, which is the epitome of throwing everything into one pot, can be a complex dish that utilizes many different cutting techniques. Hubbard, who worked with plenty of French variations of stew at Cook Street, points out that, “If you’re making a stew with a pork shoulder that is cut about the size of a dime, you’re going to want some potatoes that are cut the size of a silver dollar because you want them to be tender when the pork shoulder is finally done cooking.”

It may seem overly obvious, but with how much modern society relies on frozen meals or the restaurant, it’s easy to forget the simple details.

After all, fear of injury is one thing and safety is another, but cooking is important. Hubbard, like Owens, wants people to jump in and learn how to cook. “With our globalized, homogenized, fast-paced world, I think it’s pretty crucial and it’s more of a stretch now than ever,” Hubbard said. “You could live your entire life never touching a raw ingredient, very easily. You pay a bit of a price for that in terms of your health.” Perhaps its more of a price to pay than a cut finger.

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