Monday, January 15, 2007

The cutting edge

The Cutting Edge by Helen Rennie -- my first freelance food writing gig :)

Have you ever dreamed of being a food writer? If you have a food blog, I am 100% sure you have. If you don't have a food blog, I am only 90% sure you have. If you've never wondered what it would be like to be Ruth Reichl or Jeffrey Steingarten, you are probably reading this blog because you are related to me :) So, it wouldn't come as a surprise if I told you that for several years, way before the days of blogs, I dreamed of writing about food professionally.

I remember my first call to the editor of THE Paper (we'll leave the name of this paper anonymous). "I thought your readers might like a story on making flavored oils? No? Oh, ok... And how about...? Ok. Sorry to have bothered you." That was before I knew all about query letters and other such courtship rituals of professional writing. Then I tried writing for The Other Paper. Writers in Boston who get rejected by THE Paper write for The Other Paper. But hey, one has to start somewhere and when The Other Paper's editor replied to my query, I felt like I just got into Harvard.

They didn't want full stories, just a 150-200 word blurbs about what to eat in Boston. I'd spend days researching the places I was writing about, obsessing over every one of those 200 words only to find my stories completely rewritten to make them sound like catchy tabloids. It really got to me, when they changed the dishes I recommended for the other more "cool" sounding ones. They found those on the restaurant's website. I didn't have a chance to warn them about on-line menu being out of date because I only got to see the changes when the paper came out in print.

When I asked if they'd like some seasonal recipes, they said "Only if they come from a restaurant chef." I tried to explain that I taught cooking classes and they'd have a higher chance of getting a well-tested recipe from me than a restaurant chef who is not used to writing for home cooks. "But it's not like people actually cook this stuff," the editor said. "I am sure your recipes are good, but unless there is a well-known chef's name next to it, who'll want to read it?!"

That did it. I started this blog and swore off professional food writing forever. I only knew how to write about how to cook. I didn't know how to write about:
  • trendy ingredients ("have you tried pomegranate molasses yet?")
  • food orgasms ("the scallops melted in my mouth like a happy cloud on a spring day")
  • travel and history ("Jacques led me into the cellar of his Côte de Nuits château... ")
  • sex in the kitchen ("as I was finishing my 25th pound of onions, I heard the sous chef screwing the pastry chef in the walk-in")
I still don't know how to write that stuff. Don't get me wrong -- I love to read it, I just can't write it.

Since "how to cook" seemed to be a thing of the past, at least in the food literature, I decided to start Helen's Kitchen. To my delight, there were still people who wanted to learn how to cook, and they've been keeping me plenty busy this year. So when I got a call from Kim at Culinate.com, I was more than a little skeptical about yet another food writing opportunity. Kim told me that Culinate was not just about what's for dinner. Its goal was to take a closer look at food and its role in our lives. This wasn't volunteer work. They were looking for freelance food writers and called because they enjoyed my blog. I started to explain to Kim why they didn't want someone like me. But hey, if she was willing to give me a chance with no query letters, why not? I'll write something, they'll see for themselves that they don't want this stuff, and they'll leave me alone.

So I wrote something, and they asked if I want to do a column for them. What?! Were they crazy? It reminded me of Shrek. "Donkey, don't you see that I am a big ugly ogre? This is the part where you run away!" Kim and I spent two hours on the phone. I tried to tell her that I don't know how to be anything but myself, which doesn't seem to be very popular at the moment. Kim tried to persuade me that they actually want me for my "how to cook" content, and it doesn't have to be romantic or mouth-wateringly beautiful. "You mean I can write about stuff like how to buy and sharpen knives?" I asked. "Yes," said Kim.

Last week, my first story, "The cutting edge" went live. It felt a little strange and exciting to see my writing on another site. Do check it out, and while you are at it, see what Culinate is all about. You'll find out how to have a perfectly sharp knife with minimal work for $30 and why steeling your knives is not always a good idea in spite of what they tell you on Food TV and in cooking classes. Culinate even lets you leave comments, just like blogs, so if you want to share your own experience with choosing and sharpening knives, you can leave a comment in the end of the story.

26 comments:

Pam said...

Congratulations Helen!

Danielle said...

That's great! Mazel tov!

bea at la tartine gourmande said...

This is great news Helen! Congratulations! ;-)

Terry B said...

Congrats on the article, Helen! And the sharpening tool looks interesting.

I have to say, though, I took a knife class once in which the most important thing I learned was to sharpen your knives every time you use them. They also said that the same person should always do the sharpening--I guess that helps solve the consistency issue somewhat.

I don't sharpen knives EVERY time I use them, but I manage about three out of four times. I didn't notice a big difference right away, but now I notice my knives are much sharper. The acid test for me is slicing tomatoes--if a knife isn't sharp, the skin will dent instead of slicing, causing the tomato's innards smoosh out. Now my knives make nice clean slices every time. It's great.

Helen said...

Hi Terry,

I agree with you on frequency of sharpening. It's best to do it every day or at least every few days. What's probably different about my approach than what they taught you in the knife skills class is what device you use. I've seen very few home cooks comfortable with it. You have to not only use it daily, but destroy your knife's edge a few times before you get it right. For most people that's very discouraging. They are finally trying to use a sharpener on daily basis and what does it get them? More often than not a dull knife. So I guess I am anti-steel for everyone except for people who are already sharpening their knives at least every other day. For everyone else, accusharp or chef's choice are much better tools.

If you sharpen your knives 3 out of 4 times you use them, that's fabulous. I doubt even 5% of home cooks can say that.

Cheers,
-Helen

Terry B said...

Helen, I jumped right to your Culinate article earlier and didn't respond to your fun post. As I was gearing up to start my own blog, I read Jeffrey Steingarten's "It Must Have Been Something I Ate." Wonderful writing, full of self-effacing humor, along with fabulous food talk. I must admit, I was stunned to know that Vogue magazine, home of anorexic stick figure models, not only has a food editor, but a test kitchen too!

Have fun with Culinate. They're lucky to have your talents.

Boston Chef said...

Congrats, Helen. Great article, too...

stephen said...

Hey Helen...congratulations on framing that first writing dollar!...and thanks for all the info on knives...

velorutionary said...

Helen,

Congrats on the article. I called Broadway Panhandler in NYC to see if they had any accu-sharps in stock and they said they stopped carrying it because it creates a 45-degree angle on the blade, rather than sharpening at 20-degrees.

What is your experience?

Helen said...

Hi velorutionary,

Even if there is a degree difference, it is not as dramatic as they make it sound. To sharpen each side at 20 degrees, the angle of the V has to be 40. If it is at 45 instead of 40 degrees, that's an extra 2.5 degrees per side. Sure, it's a slight difference, but it's probably smaller than the deviation you are likely to have when sharpening on a steel with no guides.

Cook's Illustrated tried accusharp too and they recommend them as the best manual sharpener. If it was so bad, I doubt they'd be as popular in the restaurant industry.

Don't get me wrong. This isn't the best possible way to sharpen your knives, but it's way better than most cooks do now.

Cheers,
-Helen

Jess said...

congratulations, Helen! I am so looking forward to reading your article -- we just brought in our knives for a sharpening at Stoddard's, and I'm hoping that your insights will help me keep the knives sharp once they come back home (oh, how I miss them!). Thank you for sharing with us, as always.

Helen said...

Hi Jess,

Good luck with those knives. The guys in Stoddard's are extremely knowledgeable and they do a great job with sharpening.

Cheers,
-Helen

Kalyn said...

Very nice article. And very fun seeing you too!

Kim said...

Hi Helen,

We've loved having you over on Culinate, and I'm excited for folks to see more of your sensible kitchen tips in the future.

But let's see . . . if you're Shrek, does that make me Donkey?!

:-)
Kim

Anonymous said...

Helen,

Trust me on this, Kim is a good judge of potential and ability. As was said above, we are lucky to have you. I am looking forward to the next installment.

The only disadvantage of this online world is that we rarely get to me writers in person. Hopefully, when we are futher along, that will change.

Cheers,
Mark from Culinate.com

velorutionary said...

Helen,

I found the accusharp at another restaurant supplier, and tried it out on my knives at home (started with my least expensive one, just in case...).

It works really well. I am very pleased with the results.

Thanks for the tip.

Helen said...

Velorutionary: Yay -- I am so glad accusharp worked for you.

Kim and Mark: Thanks so much for your kind words. I am honored to be on Culinate's team!

Anonymous said...

Hi Helen! Congratulations on your article. I have a santoku knife and was wondering how to go about sharpening that? Should I get it professionally sharpened? If so, how do I go about finding someone who does this properly and how often should I do this?

Anonymous said...

Can you provide specific links to the items you mentioned (preferably from Amazon)? The links in the article are just general links. Also, all I found at Amazon was the Chef's Choice 440, not the 450.

I also thought you might like this article from Something in Season:

How you can tell it's a guy writing this blog

Helen said...

Hi Anonymous with a santoku knife,

You have to check with manufacturer of your knife to find out what angle it should be sharpened at. Traditionally, santoku knives are at 15-18 degree angle, but these days there are plenty of santoku-style knives that are at a European angle of 20. If it's 20, you can do all the things I suggest in the article. If it's less, you probably have to learn to use a steel. Taking your knife to a professional sharpener once a year to put on a new edge is a good idea, but you'll need to learn to maintain that edge. This means finding some sharpening device that works for you and using it every single time you cook. I believe that some Japanese knife manufacturers, like Global, put out sharpening systems that come with an alignment guide to help you maintain the correct angle. The best thing to do is find a reputable sharpener, bring in your knives and ask them for maintenance advice and tools. To know if your sharpener is reputable, ask them how they sharpen knives. If they use a 3-sided wet stone, you are in good hands. If they use a machine, you are not (at least not for your cool santoku knives).

Hope this helps!

Just in case you are located in the Boston area, go to Stoddard's or Kitchen Arts.

Cheers,
-Helen

Helen said...

Hi Anonymous who asked for the links,

Sorry we removed them on the Culinate story. The problem is that all those sites change their products all the time, so the links might or might not work a few months from now. Cutleryandmore.com will probably not change as quickly as amazon. But, here they are:

8 inch Forschner Fibrox at cutleryandmore.com

8 inch Forschner Fibrox at amazon.com - this link and price already changed since I wrote the article. It used to be slightly cheaper than cutleryandmore and now it's slightly more expensive.

Accusharp's website and retailers that carry it.

Chef's choice 450 at cutleryandmore.com - I can't seem to figure out how this is different from 440, so either one is fine.

Cheers,
-Helen

Magda said...

Congratulations! I read the piece, it's very informative and, as always, it's great writing. I'm looking forward to more!

Anonymous said...

I am getting married and in the process of adding items to my registry. Besides from an 8" chef's knife, what other knives do you recommend for someone who cooks at least 5-6 days a week?

Helen said...

Hi Anonymous who is getting married,

First of all, congratulations :)

I'd also recommend a boning knife, a paring knife, and a bread knife. Victorinox makes all of those and they are all great.

Cheers,
-Helen

Anonymous said...

How do you store/organize your knives? I have 2 chef's knives, a boning knife, and 2 paring knives, but they are from different brands.

Helen said...

I store my knives in a butcher block that I got with my first (incredibly crappy) knife set while I was still in college. None of the knives from that set are still around, but the butcher block still does it's job quite nicely. The clever slot holds my forschner 8 inch chef's knife (it doesn't fit into regular chef's knife slot). The regular chef's knife slot holds a wusthof. I also keep a paring, boning, and bread knives in it. Is that a good system? Not really, but it works for me. I am a creature of habit and don't want to change things, but if I did it again, I'd buy a Wusthof knife tray. They make a smaller one too. It fits in a drawer nicely and is much more flexible than a butcher block in terms of knife sizes.

Cheers,
-Helen