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Working the Line: Knife Etiquette

Every workday as a line cook starts with the same ritual. We unpack our knives. Like a samurai unsheathes his sword with great reverence, a cook withdraws his chef’s knife. There is a history, an oath, and a respect for what the blade does for us, and what we do with the blade.

“This is my knife. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My knife is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. My knife, without me, is useless. Without my knife, I am useless.”
“This is my knife. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My knife is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. My knife, without me, is useless. Without my knife, I am useless.”

If you’re thinking that this unofficial chef’s oath sounds familiar, it is, because it’s modeled after the Marine Corps’ Rifleman’s Creed, which you likely remember from the classic movie Full Metal Jacket. A chef without a knife is not a chef. Even worse, though, is a chef who has not mastered his knife; he’s basically a safety hazard.

No matter what ends up on the cutting board, a good chef knows what techniques to use and understands how each item will respond to his knife. He knows exactly what angle to use and precisely how much pressure it takes to execute the perfect chop, dice, chiffonade, peel, julienne, mince, or filet. It’s not really a stretch to state that many chefs know their knives better than they know their own family.

In any kitchen a cook’s knife is his baby. He must care for it by keeping it under constant supervision and ensuring it is always in good condition. Knives must be clean and sharp. That’s it.  It never leaves your side or cutting board. Many of us have knives that are worth more than our nicest outfits, which may explain why many of us feel naked or lost without our most prized possession.

But as much as we’d like to think that our knives will always be with us, the inevitable happens: You, or your fellow line cook, shows up to work without knives. (I’d like to state that this rarely happens at my work, which is why most of us are happy to lend a knife to our usually very dependable co-workers.)

Allowing another cook to borrow your knife is like entrusting your child to daycare. When it’s returned, you expect it to be in the same condition it was when it left your side.

When this does not happen, a Samuel L. Jackson-like beast often comes out to remind people about knife etiquette. To emulate Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction, who would voice what every chef has always wanted to say: A person who fails to practice good knife etiquette is “an inconsiderate f***ing prick who doesn’t deserve the right to cook, or, for that matter, the right to live.”