Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Ruhlman's post yesterday (still today for me; had to stay up late because of an ill dog) put to paper my own pet peeve: the willful ignorance, bordering on stubborn refusal, by people to learn even the most basic of knife skills and care.

I realize that I am somewhat a strange case: my dad had trained as a chef in his 20s and felt that learning to cook was an important part of my upbringing, and learning to cook to him revolved around two basic skills he introduced me to at the age of 7 or 8. They are both very important; the first was making an omelette, the second was proper handling, care, and use of a chef's knife. And, for the past five years, I shaved exclusively with a straight razor (though practicality makes that impossible now that college is a waning memory). So, my skill with a blade, and my comfort with sharpening, is far and above that of the average American.

So, yes, one could make a very strong case that I shouldn't judge other people for not knowing how to use a knife. In fact, I will gladly give you that point. But, I don't see any possible excuse for the way so many people act around knives. They refuse to buy good knives, they buy knives that are grossly too small (a boning knife should not be used to dice an onion), they never sharpen them, they refuse to learn safe cutting techniques. And, of course, no one likes to be told they don't know what they are doing, even if they would readily admit their ignorance to someone who is just as ignorant (not that I ever patronize someone while they have a knife in their hands).

The point is, the knife is central to the kitchen. Unless one's entire kitchen repertoire consists of whole roasted vegetables and Chateaubriand, every dish starts under a knife. Properly honed knives, when used correctly, make such easy work (even if one doesn't work quickly) of prepping ingredients that cooking hardly seems time consuming at all. And the vast majority of my friends stubbornly refuse to pick up a chef's knife and a steel and learn even the simplest cutting stroke.

It can be intimidating to learn a new skill. Cooking on a daily basis, for all my meals, used to seem like something I would never be able to do. I certainly did not get to the place I am now in a week. Truth be told, even my knife skills could use some practice. But why don't more people at least want to learn these skills, even at the rudimentary level?

Here's a great example of the sort of benefit one can gain from proper knife skills. At Thanksgiving, I walked into the kitchen to see my mom slicing a carrot for turkey soup. She was gripping the handle, not the bolster, and was using straight up and down strokes to cut the carrot with the heel of the blade. The blade wobbled whenever she applied pressure, and her fingers were in danger of receiving a glancing blow if the carrot were to spin before the blade bit. Since it was my mom, I didn't feel too horrible a person for pointing out to her that if she gripped the bolster and kept tip of the blade on the counter, the whole affair would be smoother and safer, especially if she pushed the knife forward as she brought it down.

Reluctantly, she made the switch, more to humor me than anything else. However, just that tiny switch made the slicing so much safer and the carrot/blade so much more stable, that her speed immediately increased and she visibly relaxed. She actually remarked at Christmas, the next time I was home, how glad she was I'd made the comment.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Intelligentsia's Clover Fetish

Say what you want about coffee, passions run high, especially here in Chicago. One of our leading coffee establishments recently announced the phasing out of standard drip coffee, to be replaced with made-to-order cups from a Clover machine. If you don't know what this is about, don't worry about it, you probably wouldn't care anyway. However, it's a rather contentious issue to those who know both Intelligentsia and the Clover machine (mostly for pricing reasons), and Gaper's Block's food page ran a post complaining about the shift (among other changes). I was kind of put off by what the post said, because I sometimes lose my head in battles of customer service, and wrote a letter complaining about the decision to Intelligentsia. I was pretty impressed with their response, which was sent less than a business day after I originally complained. Here's what Intelligentsia had to say:


Thanks for your email. Also, thank you for being a long time customer. I suspect some of your information you may have gathered from Gaper’s Block, which didn’t quite get the pricing right. Coffee of the Clover will not be twice as expensive as brewed coffee was before. Although it will not be as inexpensive as coffee out of the urn, there will always be a “Pick of the Day,” that will be quite reasonable and brewed to order. Here is what the new menu looks like:


Espresso - 2.50

Macchiato - 2.75

Con Panna - 2.75

Cappuccino - 3.25

Latte - 3.25 / 3.50 / 3.75

Valharona Mocha - 3.75 / 4.00 / 4.25

Americano - 2.75

Coffee by the Cup - Made to Order
Today's Pick - 2.00 / 2.35 / 2.65
Select Offerings - 3 & up

Chemex For Two - 6 & up

Valharona Hot Chocolate - 3.25 / 3.50 / 3.75

House Chai - 3.25 / 3.50 / 3.75

Most drinks may be served iced.

We really believe that brewed to order is the way to go as it highlights what we do, brews a better tasting cup and never sits on heat. We do feel that it is much more in line with our mission. I realize this may not be exactly what you wanted to hear, but we do feel it is how we need to move forward.
To take the sting out of all of this, if you would be so kind as to send me your mailing address, I’ll send you a gift card so at least the next few drinks will be on us.

Kind regards,

Doug Zell

Needless to say, I sent them my mailing address. [Update: Due to a comment made by James (below), I now have reason to believe that this was actually sent by Doug Zell. I am pleased and somewhat impressed.]

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Eerie Similarities

I walked all over the Gold Coast today trying to find a free wi-fi spot so that I could find directions online to a Jewish deli which is rumored to be great. I almost found the deli before finding wi-fi. Only a few blocks farther north and I would have been there. Unfortunately, no deli for me today; my hunger got the best of me before I could make it to either, and I settled for a drenched beef with sweet peppers. The fries were disappointing. And who would have known that Starbucks had such a complicated system for getting internet access, involving cards with minimum limits and other more complicated things, like Green's theorem.

At least I got to take the Brown line north, for my first day of class at NEIU. I was planning on doing the Red line to the Berwyn and taking the bus west, but after I finally found an internet place that didn't charge an exorbitant fee, I discovered that the Brown line in fact terminates only a few blocks south of NEIU. So, I got to take that north, and then walk the rest of the way. The Brown line has got to be one of the coolest L lines in Chicago. It travels from the Loop to the northwest on elevated tracks which go behind apartment buildings, through Lincoln Park, to the west of Wrigley Field, and then veers due west and, after Western Ave, drops to street level and runs in the alley between two rows of houses. That drop really surprised me, as did the crossing gate arms which kept cars from dying beneath our massive train's wheels. It was weird to hear a dog barking when the doors opened at Francisco. This is one of my new recommendations for tourists: ride the Brown line to the Kimball terminus and then walk around a bit (but just a bit). You'll get to see the real side of Chicago, and one of the most unique public transit lines I've ever ridden - half subway, half streetcar.

When I finally got to NEIU, I walked straight to the science building, which it turns out is a slightly rundown lecture building from the late 1970s or so. I walked in and was immediately struck by a sense of deja-vu: the building reminded me of Nottingham University to an unnerving degree. Such a strange and unexpected feeling to get.