Food Studies: Serious Knife Skills

Posted by Christine Byrne

Food Studies features the voices of volunteer student bloggers from a variety of different food- and agriculture-related programs at universities around the world. Don't miss Christine's first post, which explains how she went to culinary school to become a better food writer, but ended up falling in love with cooking itself.

Simply put, culinary school is fun. Five hours go by really, really fast when you spend them in a kitchen, talking about food and cooking food with twenty other people who also love food.  The best part of it for me, though, is that every class is a process that yields an end result to be judged. Call me an education junkie (you wouldn’t be wrong), but I thrive on teacher feedback and evaluation. Being able to present a dish at the end of every class and have each detail picked apart, for better or worse, really gets me going. Like I said, culinary school is fun.

Similarly, I like being able to track my progress, and by far the best indicator of this is knife work. Three months into my program at the French Culinary Institute, and I am finally getting the hang of taillage. I’ve learned plenty else—how to make and not break a hollandaise sauce, how to fillet and skin a flat or round fish, and how to quenelle whipped cream, to name a few things—but I feel like I am just now gaining the upper hand in the battle of "Christine vs. the Julienne cut."

To give some background, taillage is the process of cutting things into standardized, uniform shapes to ensure even cooking and present a proper aesthetic. (Culinary School 101: Even the simplest things have fancy French names). Memorizing the different cuts is the first step—to unknowingly present a salad of brunoise vegetables when the recipe called for macedoine would be humiliating, to say the least. Then, it’s a matter of getting comfortable with your (sharp!) knife and cutting lots and lots of produce.

I understand how some would find this tedious, the seemingly endless pile of vegetables waiting to be peeled, squared off, and cut into your best attempt at a 5mm x 5cm stick, or a 2mm dice. Me, I kind of like it. For one thing, there’s something meditative about focusing on nothing but a knife, a cutting board, and a carrot. 

More seriously, though, it feels good to know that I’m slowly mastering the very basics of classic cooking. Trends change, but taillage stays the same… or something like that. And while, really, plenty of people can roast a tray of potatoes or reduce a sauce, knife skills take serious practice.

Taillage is a set of rules we learn to follow, and I guess when it comes down to it, I like a good set of rules. A pile of uncooked julienne sitting on my cutting board is the most concrete measure of improvement. It's great to get feedback on the clarity of my consommé, the texture of my lemon tart, and the balance of seasoning in my skate Grenobloise. But taillage is either right, or it's not, and there's nothing subjective about it. Cooking is a creative and constantly evolving field, but the basics are pretty nonnegotiable, and that is the most valuable thing I have learned at FCI thus far.

To be continued... Christine is a student blogger for the Food Studies feature on GOOD's Food hub. If you enjoyed this, you should check out the rest of the Food Studies blogger gang here.

All photos by the author, except for the taillage diagram, which was taken by Emily Fleischaker.