KQED Food Blog: Bay Area Bites: Knife Skills Class 101
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Monday, May 08, 2006
Knife Skills Class 101

The first time I was asked to teach a knife skills class I laughed out loud. Any cook knows pastry chefs don't keep their knives sharp. But luckily for Jen, who was requesting a class after cutting herself in the kitchen for what she hoped would be the last time, I started as a line cook and have the knives to prove it.

Because pastry chefs don't butcher meat, filet fishes, or brunoise endless vegetables it's said we don't need our blades to be fancy, varied or razor sharp. But for supreming citrus, slicing endless apples, halving cakes and chopping chocolate we do in fact need to have a few knives fit for the job.

This past Saturday I had the pleasure of teaching a knife skills class to eleven people in the backyard of one of our finest food bloggers, Guy Prince of Meathenge. Guy showed up at my very first class and brought antique carbon steel knives that, from the look of them, could have been used at King Arthur's table. I'm very lucky because he owns a big rig digital SLR and takes dynamic photographs of my teaching in action. (All the photographs here are his.)

The class is 50% lecture, 25% demonstration and 25% hands-on with my personal instruction. I bring almost all of my knives and do an in-depth show & tell comparing and contrasting the disparate collection, tell stories about the various kitchens I've worked in, the most intense stories coming from The French Laundry where innumerable torturous jobs are given to cooks. In the mouths of the diners, these details are quickly eaten, almost imperceptible taste sensations. I demonstrate techniques for more texturally exciting food, cuts that might make the person whose sole job it is in a kitchen go postal, but at home impresses dinner guests or woos prospectives. I explain and create examples of certain finesses like how to peel raw peppers or cherry tomatoes. Although I look out to raised eyebrows, when people pop these naked veggies in their mouths, everyone says "Wow!"

Nothing like a vegetable tasted as itself, without the barrier of it's vegetal Ziploc bag.

I bring two kinds of steels and show how to hone different knives. Sharpening I leave to the experts as I have only just barely learned myself. Although the fabulous Bruce Cole has offered his knife sharpening techniques for the next San Francisco class I teach. For the home cook I suggest getting knives professionally sharpened once every 6 months or so based on use, and learning how to hone before, during and after a particularly demanding knife use recipe.

At the end of the class I was able to watch and correct a number of people eager to learn a safe and comfortable honing technique. I love when people are brave and bold enough to get their hands dirty during the hands-on portion of the class.

My first foray into teaching was through the Saturday Shop With The Chef program sponsored by CUESA at the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market about six years ago. Having not gone to culinary school or taken baking or cooking classes I was worried I wouldn't know how to do it. I picked my easiest recipe I was serving at Citizen Cake, my then employer. Late Summer tart: pine nut crust, pepper- honeyed chevre topped with spiced red wine poached figs. Needless to say since then I have figured out how to rewrite a recipe for home bakers and stick to recipes where I can teach method through more straightforward dishes!

I taught dessert making through Sur La Table for a few years, and although my classes were very popular, they have since "corporatized" their program omitting the need for unique instruction.

Patrick Guilfoyle and his wife Pippi came to Saturday's class all the way from LA! They, "Loved the class, the information, the stories, the entertainment. All and all an afternoon good and well spent. Thanks again for the class. We think u rock."

I think teaching rocks. Not every chef can teach, or share. Because all my culinary training has been done on the job, I have had to learn under fire. The people who took the time along the way to patiently explain certain techniques are the ones I will never forget. When someone was looking for a knife skills class, Guy mentioned me, and when the person said, "Who's Shuna? Why should we take a class from her?" Guy replied, "Because Shuna will speak to you, to your level. And she has all these great stories."

I love teaching. It's a way of passing on what I know and having a forum to learn from others. I believe that, "We keep what we have by giving it away." My next class will focus on pate choux, a dough elusive to me for years until I worked at a restaurant where I had to make it every day. Popularly known as eclair or cream puff dough, pate choux is extremely versatile and easy once you know some of it's tricks. When I have secured a location I will post the details on Eggbeater. Come one, come all, come hungry to learn.


Blogger Jennifer Maiser said...

I will have you know that I have not cut myself with my knife since that class over a year ago! Everytime I am cutting carrots now, your voice and instruction echo in my head.

5/08/2006 9:13 AM

Anonymous Patrick Guilfoyle said...

Knife skills. Visions of Benihana, the Ginsu Chef impressing with cut pennies ? Fortunately, no, but with an emphasis on skilled. My wife and I took Shuna’s class this past weekend described above by none other than. Thought I would leave some impressions on what we learned for everyones else's benefit. I alas was clueless on my own knife purchases. I own lots of knives - lots of expensive superfluous knives. I could have saved myself hundreds if not thousands if only I had known what I know now. I thought that I knew just a little too much about the knife cutting craft to take a skills course. But, I thought that I would come only to support Shuna’s efforts. I was wrong. I learned so much, and in a way that was most appealing. Safety, technique, terminology, all wrapped up in an entertaining personal demonstration. I will practice in as in-to-make-perfect the “skills” that I learned in this class, and be a better cook because of it. Ya, Shuna we think that your class, you - the French Laundry all ROCK. Now we just have a better perspective on why.

5/08/2006 11:19 PM

Anonymous Kung Foodie Kat said...

Hey! There's a new cooking class space in north Berkeley called Kitchen on Fire. Maybe you could teach there? http://www.kitchenonfire.com/

5/09/2006 4:44 PM

Blogger shuna fish lydon said...


Thank you for the link! I have sent them an inquiry. Although I must say that I like for my classes to be a bit less formal as the structure that most "schools" seem to use.

Also I think it's a crime that many cooking schools charge so much to the students and give the chef so little of the earnings. But perhaps that's another post...

5/09/2006 8:37 PM

Blogger cookiecrumb said...

How cool that you had such great weather in Biggles' backyard for your class.
(Your hair is growing long!!)

5/10/2006 4:47 PM

Anonymous Kim Nico said...


The knife skills class has had such a wonderful, subtle effect on our lives! Sort of like when I got married, everything was the same, yet different. I notice my husband's knife skills seem ... well, more in focus is the only way I can describe it. And we now want to peel everything! I suggested to my husband that we try peeling the cherries we got this weekend at the farmer's market. Mmm...pure cherry!

Your presentation was so utterly engaging, simultaneously instructive and entertaining, that I forgot where I was while you were talking. I think I almost fell out of my chair. It has inspired us even 2 weeks later, to think about the shapes we are cutting our food into -- will it matter? --No, it's getting cooked until it gives up. --Yes, yes, it will be more wonderful peeled.

We talked all the way home about your class (all 4 hours!) and are still talking about it. Thank you, Shuna! We are now lifelong fans and only wish we could go to Poulet for lunch.

5/15/2006 11:41 AM

Anonymous Barbara said...

I am really glad that I suggested to Kim on my blog to take the class--it sounds like it was a really great experience.

Shuna--if I am ever in the Bay Area when you are teaching, I would gladly take a class with you! You sound like a natural born teacher!

5/15/2006 1:39 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Shauna,
I was in SF last week after like 6 years and now reading your blog now I wish I knew that you were giving classes and I had the chance to attend them... I decided to leave my profession and Istanbul and go to SF Culinary Institute and do the patisserie certificate program and am excited and scared.. Just wanted to say thank you for being an inspiration.

5/16/2006 3:40 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Which do you prefer: a whetstone or an electric knife sharpener to sharpen your favorite knives?

10/11/2006 2:08 PM


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