Knife Work

September 3rd, 2007

Knife Skills Illustrated
Knife Skills Illustrated
A User’s Manual
Peter Hertzmann

W.W. Norton & Co. (August, 2007); 256 pages; $29.95

Before supermarket produce cases were filled with plastic containers of melon cubes and bags of apple slices and lathe-turned “baby carrots,” there were knives. More precisely, there were more people in more kitchens who knew how to wield the oldest of culinary tools.

Peter Hertzmann’s book is an impassioned encouragement to readers that they pick up their blades and fearlessly core fennel, butterfly legs of lamb, and filet fish.

The author gained his own knife skills studying with Chinese and French chefs and working in restaurant kitchens. He passes on the advice of his mentors with grace and humility. Readers will do well to follow the author, mastering Chinese chef Martin Yan’s example of the “pinch grip,” before turning their knives to boning poultry or any of the other prep tasks illustrated here.

By his own admission, Peter Hertzmann is obsessive. So we have detailed drawings and text for each step involved—for filleting flat fish and “round” fish, for mincing both garlic and shallots, for trimming artichokes and asparagus—all of these for both right-handed and left-handed cooks.

One might expect Mr. Hertzmann to send us out to buy a new arsenal of blades at the local cooking emporium. But he’s a purist and a minimalist, convinced that one’s batterie de cuisine needs no more than two well-honed knives: a chef’s knife and a paring knife.

The author’s written explanations are clear and enhanced by exquisite drawings, which, like fine botanical or medical renderings, illuminate more than any photos might. So we must ask who made the editorial call to reduce to postage-stamp dimensions the illustrations for carving large birds and joints of meat? Everything need not be viewed full-size, but the deconstruction of a chicken warrants more space than the slicing of a garlic clove.

And because Mr. Hertzmann is so attentive to the anatomy, care, and safe-keeping of knives, we’d really welcome Mr. Witschonke’s illustration of the honing techniques described in the text. Here, one picture really would be worth a thousand words.

These minor imbalances should be easy enough to correct in a second edition of this useful manual.


Peter Hertzmann has taught knife skills and cooking at Sur La Table as well as privately in both France and the United States. He also authors the e-zine à la carte. He lives in Palo Alto, California

Disclosure: W.W. Norton sent us this book for our review.

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