Thursday, July 22, 2010

The claw grip video

Yes, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred did backwards and in high heels, but pair her up with a bad partner and I doubt there'd be much to see.  I used to dance ballroom and Latin in college.  Just for fun, I would sometimes try to learn how to lead, and let me tell you -- it's hard.  Sure the follower gets all the intricate footwork, but it's the leader's job to lead her into all these moves and to make her look beautiful and elegant while doing them.  What does that have to do with knife skills?  Everything!

When you watch professional chefs chop, their hands do a lovely dance that is not that different from tango.  The knife hand is the one that gets all the attention.  I bet that's what you are looking at when you watch food TV.  That's Ginger.  It's showy and flashy, but that's not where the speed and accuracy comes from.  It comes from the guiding hand.  It seems like it just sits there on the vegetable doing nothing.  But look closer and you'll see how complex its job is.  It holds the vegetable in place and leans against the knife blade telling it where to land.  All the knife hand has to do is go up and down in a rhythmic pattern and somehow the slices come out all even.  

How does the guiding hand manage to produce slices that can be as thin as paper?  Just like Fred did -- full body contact.  If you are thinking that it's easier to be pressed against another warm body than a sharp knife, think again.  Both are hard.  In one case, you feel like you are going to trip each other and fall; in another, like you'll chop your fingers off.  Neither usually happens, and if you conquer your fear, you'll be amazed how much your dancing or chopping will improve.

Here is a video I just made of how to use the claw grip correctly.  It will help you with slicing and dicing absolutely everything -- from an onion to bok choi.  

Sept 6, 2011 update:  I have recently made a new and improved claw grip video, which I put into this post instead of the original video.

p.s. by the way, I don't think I ever went through as many band aids whiles learning to chop as while learning to dance.  No, it wasn't from my partner stepping on me.  It was from excruciatingly painful high heels.  


Teri said...

Fantastic. Thanks for posting. I just bought a new CIA chef's knife and am working on learning to use it properly. (It's a great knife!)

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot, Len!
I thought I knew what I was doing with a knife, but you sure proved me wrong. Excellent tutorial.
Dima, Chicago.

Jean Z. said...

Stupendous! I can't wait to get home and chop something! This was just what I needed. Thanks.

Irina said...


Do you have any tips on how to hold and guide the knife when slicing smaller objects such as radishes or shallots? I usually use the thumb and index finger of my left hand to hold the object in place by both ends while slicing with a small knife held in the right hand, but I'm wondering if there is a better way.

Thank you,

Helen said...

Hi Irina,

If you are more comfortable with a smaller knife on very small objects, that's fine, but you should still use a claw grip if you don't want to cut yourself. I don't switch knives. If you use the chef's knife correctly, you can slice a garlic clove with a 10 inch knife. The trick is to gather all 5 of your finger tips into one point on the vegetable. Don't spread them out the way you would on a larger vegetable. Of course, this only works if your claw grip is attached to the knife, which it should be anyway. With a small vegetable, there is no space for a gap.


Irina said...

Thank you, Helen! Wow, using the claw grip and a large knife on something as small as a garlic clove sounds hard... I'll give it a try, though!

Helen said...

Hi Irina,

I was paying more attention to exactly what I do with a tiny object like a garlic clove today. Not all the fingers can fit on it especially towards the end. So 4th and 5th end up on the board. What doesn't change is a claw grip. Your finger tips should still be tucked in. The knuckle on at least your 2nd finger should still be touching the knife. Your elbow should still be out and your thumb should be hiding behind the 2nd finger. It's the real test of your knife skills :) I suggest practicing on larger vegetables first.


Joanna said...

Hi Helen, thanks so much for posting this video! I've heard about the claw grip before but never tried it myself until I watched your demonstration. I put it to work last night cutting up a cucumber, and I got comfortable with the actual slicing motion fairly quickly. My problem came in shuffling the food along the cutting board for the next slice. In your video, you seem to be making very thin slices; I was aiming for a thickness of about 1/4", and after each slice I found myself picking up the claw grip hand, sliding the cucumber over, forming my hand back into the claw, and making another slice.

It worked, but it was so slow! Is it just a matter of practicing more? How do you change your grip when cutting thin slices versus thick slices? And without looking closely at each slice, how do you make sure they are even?

Thanks so much for any advice -- I really want to make this work!

Helen said...

Hi Joanna,

So glad you are working on improving your knife skills :) First things first -- the vegetable stays in place. It's the guiding hand that moves. It gradually crawls backwards on the vegetable at a very steady pace. What gives you even slice is maintaining the speed of the guiding hand and the knife hand. It takes A LOT of practice. It's not something you can just understand, it's something that comes with time. To move your guiding hand, you don't pick it up off the vegetable completely. Imagine that your hand is a 5 legged bug and it slowly walks backwards on the vegetable. The bigger the slices you want, the faster your guiding hand "walks."

Also, make sure that whatever you are slicing has a flat side. It's hard to keep round things steady (like a whole cucumber or carrot). Cut them in half lengthwise to give yourself a flat side (at least while you are still learning and getting comfortable with the claw grip).


Nora said...

Thank you. I'm 11 and learning to cook. My mom does not know how to use a knife properly, so this is really helpful to me and my mom. I will be practicing. I have a food blog and will tell my friends who cook about this video.

Joanna said...

OH, you move your hand along, that makes so much more sense than what I was trying to do! (Luckily I had in fact cut my cucumber in half lengthwise first, otherwise it probably would have been a total disaster.) I will try again soon for sure! Thanks for your help!

The Cook said...

Wow, excellent video, perfect description and awesome example! I'll be working on my finger-walking as that has been problematic for me. Thanks!