How To Be a Knife Ninja
By: Elena Gustavson
“How many here are knife ninjas?” After a pause, two or three hands creep up in the small crowd of flannel- and Carhart-clad students. This group from Green Mountain College is a bit shy, but definitely interested. “Great! How about you?” I smile encouragingly to the young woman with the knitted hat and big smile who raised her hand first. “Come on up here and show us how to straighten a blade on this steel.”
She laughs and shakes her head, but walks to the front of her fellow students and takes the knife and honing steel, a ribbed, elongated rod used to realign the edges of a knife blade, from my hands. Under the watchful gazes of the other students seated in metal folding chairs in the assembly room of a local church, she glides the cutting edge of the chef’s knife across the steel a few times and laughs again. “I know I’m doing this wrong!” before moving to hand it back to me. I tell her to keep it, and picking up another knife and honing steel on the table, I demonstrate for her how I hold the edge of my knife at an angle to the steel.
Together we straighten our blades for the audience, working out the technique while we chat about our favorite celebrity chefs (“Anthony Bourdain and Jaime Oliver”) and our favorite breakfast foods (eggs with avocado for me, pancakes and maple syrup for her). We finish and with eight more knives lined up in front of us, I look back to the crowd and say, “Who’s next?” To my delight, several hands shoot up.
This is “Everyday Chef,” a food and cooking education program that we run out of church kitchens, the local public television station, and community recreation centers all around Rutland and its surrounding areas. We’ve shown up in the lunchrooms of Rutland City’s road crew and fire station; taught bi-monthly classes in recovery homes for opiate addicts; grilled vegetables in the cafeteria at Omya and GE Aviation; and blended up smoothies for the third shift at Rutland Regional Medical Center. We’ve taught knife skills and basic cooking classes to kids as young as 10 years old and did a four-part series of easy, healthy dorm cooking for college students.
Give us a couple of six foot tables, running water, and a power cord, and we can conduct a hands-on workshop for as many as 15 people just about anywhere. With a part-time coordinator and funding from the Bowse Health Trust, Everyday Chef’s mission is to empower and engage eaters by building confidence in the kitchen, while promoting nutritious, seasonal, local food. We create a custom workshop curriculum coordinating enthusiastic and knowledgeable educators, as well as design and conduct our workshops, demonstrations, and events. We develop recipes, design how-to cards, and even produce a televised “Local Farmer Everyday Chef” cooking series at our local community television station. Demand for our classes and workshops now far outweighs our capacity to conduct them. But we didn’t start out this way.
Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (affectionately known as RAFFL) is a Rutland based nonprofit whose mission is to build connections that grow a strong agricultural economy and a healthy community. We recognize that if we want to rebuild a healthy food system, we must think systemically—of the whole, not just the parts. Everyday Chef was a program that was started partly to address what seemed to be a gap in understanding of the local foods RAFFL was promoting to our greater communities. The first years of Everyday Chef saw us offering taste tests of kohlrabi, heirloom tomatoes, radishes, and fresh greens at various events throughout the area. Those taste tests eventually evolved into cooking demonstrations, recipe cards, written articles for the paper and RAFFL blog, local television spots, photographs and “how-to” blog posts, and various other means of outreach through the many different channels we had available to us. But the question still remained. Were we really affecting change?
Eaters are genuinely challenged. Not just with a general lack of awareness around seasonality of local ingredients within a global marketplace, but with knowing how to cook. And not just cooking with whole foods, but with cooking, period. We have people in our communities who do not have access to basic kitchen tools let alone basic cooking skills, where fresh produce, local or not, is seen as a luxury, not a necessity. In addition, Rutland is the third largest city in Vermont, second only to Burlington and South Burlington. Without the economic advantages enjoyed by Chittenden County, our opportunities and challenges here are often different. So, Everyday Chef evolved.
We started asking people what they wanted and then figured out how we could offer it. We went to where people were already going—work, schools, church, community centers, and then we created the portable kitchens. We worked with Vermont Farm to Plate’s consumer profiles and created workshop topics that targeted specific participants (men, people with diagnosed conditions and families with children, to name just a few). We created incentives and sent people home with ingredients. We encourage peer-to-peer learning. We taught knife skills. Without a doubt, we ran into challenges and some things worked better than others, but ultimately, we came up with a winning formula that isn’t really a formula insomuch as it is an appeal to human nature. We meet people where they already are, work alongside them and with them, moving forward with the hope that our investment will bring people closer to embracing and supporting our local farms because they feel empowered and are invested in their own health and well-being.
We are now in our third year of this deepened approach toward food education at RAFFL and the metrics have been encouraging. Each workshop we conduct must demonstrate the following three things: (1) seasonal ingredients that can be accessed locally; (2) focus on health and wellness; and (3) a goal to increase confidence of the participant. For the most part, we hit those objectives with ease and are now thinking about how to refine our systems and replicate this success to expand the number of people we can reach. People are hungry for this type of learning and interaction. It isn’t a hard sell, but it means regional community organizations like ourselves that are primarily working toward rebuilding our food systems and the health of our communities need to be active listeners and allow ourselves to be led by the very people we aim to serve. In a world of measurable outcomes and replication of success, that can prove to be a challenging, but rewarding journey.
At the end of my workshop with the Green Mountain College students, the purpose of which was to demonstrate how to conduct a hands-on cooking workshop, we sat together eating the wilted kale and vegetable salad we had made, sipping on cider, and nibbling on cheddar. I listened to them talk about classes and what they were doing that weekend while they filled out our survey, wrote down feedback about their interest in vegan and raw food cooking, and answered questions about recipe development and how to fry tofu without it sticking to the pan (press it and use hot oil!). Soon, we said our good-byes and I went about cleaning and packing up the ingredients and tools, taking my time and thinking about what went well, and what needed to be changed for the next time. I penciled a few changes to the master copy of the recipe cards I handed out earlier. The car loaded with cutting boards, knives, pots, and tools, I wiped down the counters and tables, swept the floor, and flipped off the lights on my way out the door.