Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Keep Your Tools Sharp

Fair warning: I'm probably going to get weird. I feel like maybe I should just put that in the heading of the blog at this point. For those who don't know, I went to culinary school in 2001 - 2002. I developed a close relationship with my knives.

I was 17 years old when I bought my first knife set. It is still with me 12 years later. Of course, when I was 21, I lost the paring knife that came with the set. It was a great paring knife, too. It had a  four inch blade. It was very thin and agile. It felt like it belonged in my hand (one small caveat here - I am looking for different things to add to my amazon store and I stumbled upon an exact replica of the knife that I lost. Unfortunately, it is stamped steel and not forged. The search continues.). I haven't used one quite like it since it disappeared. The paring knife I currently own isn't horrible; and I've gotten accustomed to its feel in my hand, but it has never felt quite like it belongs there. The very tip of the blade chipped off. I don't hold that fact against the knife, though. It was like that when I found it. A few days earlier, I had actually broken the blade of the exact same model of knife. Then I just found this one sitting in the dish room at school. It seemed serendipitous, so I took it upon myself to borrow a new paring knife. The funny thing is that I never threw out my broken one. It still sits in my knife kit as if I will use it at some point. I won't. I know this. It has been there for ten years without being used. It won't be used in the next ten. I still can't bring myself to get rid of it.

I have only broken one knife in my life. It was the paring knife I mentioned above. I was in a pastry class where we were learning how to make plated desserts. Plated desserts are basically what you get when you order dessert in a fancy restaurant. They are desserts with a couple of components. An apple pie with cinnamon ice cream and a Grand Marnier caramel sauce, raspberry cheesecake with Sambuca ganache and a vanilla whipped cream; you get the picture. It was the first or second week of the class and we were learning how to temper chocolate (Here is a good link about tempering chocolate: In order to do this we had to shave chocolate off of huge five pound blocks, melt it down, and then play with it until it was tempered (btw, this process is a gigantic pain in the ass). I was a 19 year-old kid in a hurry. The method the teacher recommended to shave the chocolate off the block was taking too much time (he said we should take our French knives and just shave thin layers off of the edge of the block). So I decided to take my paring knife, jab it point-first into the block, then turn it like a key to break larger chunks off the block. This worked famously for about 90 seconds. Then, I twisted the blade and heard a snap. But it was not the snap of chocolate breaking from the block. It was the sharp ping of a half inch of steel breaking off of my knife. Then everyone laughed at me. I was heart-broken over the loss of my knife. I learned a lesson that day, though. If you're going to try to break chocolate off of a large block in the fashion that I described, don't use a paring knife. Use a knife that was designed to handle similar torque, like an oyster knife. Or, what is probably a more reasonable approach, use the method that someone with 20 years of experience has taught you.

A sharp knife is a safe knife. This is a rule that is taught to all culinary students on day one. You are going to cut yourself. There is no way around it when you use a knife for 40 or more hours a week. You get tired, over-worked, under-rested, drunk, hung over, and you are constantly in a hurry. If your knives are dull, they won't cut your skin so much as they will tear it. If your knives are sharp, the cuts will be thin and will heal quickly, even if they are deep. If your knives are dull, they will open wide, gaping wounds in your hands that are more likely to require stitches. No body wants stitches. Here is a two minute instructional video on knife sharpening (

I keep my knives very sharp. I would venture to guess that even when I let my knives get dull they are still sharper than 90% of knives in the world. A sharp knife becomes a point of pride amongst cooks. I used to run my knives over my stone once a week or so. Now, I am less obsessive about them (but still pretty obsessive - I will describe my process soon). I also use them a lot less than I used to, so they end up staying sharper longer.

When I do sharpen my knives, I do all of them. I lay them all out on the counter. I set up my stone and I take my time. I will often set aside two hours just to get my knives back into shape. I have a stone with three different grit sizes on it. I rarely use the side that is the most coarse. That side is sort of reserved for when there is a burr in the edge. I don't usually hack through things that are hard enough to chip the edges of my knives, so I don't use that stone very often. So I start on the medium grit stone. I use water on my stones because water is cheaper than oil. Some people like oil because it allows the blades to slide a little more easily. I have used both. It doesn't really make a difference in the sharpness of the blade in my humble opinion. When you sharpen your knives, you are essentially holding the blade at about a 20 degree angle to the stone (hold the blade perpendicular to the stone, tip it halfway, then tip it halfway again - close enough to 20 degrees). You want to have as much of the length of the blade contacting the stone as is possible while you are moving the blade across the stone (the gentleman in the video does a really great job of this). You can actually hear the difference between a smooth stroke and one in which you tip the blade forward or back. It is almost as if the knife tells you when you are doing a good job.

So here we are, knives all laid out on the counter, stone set up and wet down. I like to do this when the house is completely silent so I can hear the blades running across the stone. I find a slow, smooth rhythm while moving the knife across the stone, flipping to the other side of the blade and moving it back across the stone the other way. Sometimes I close my eyes and just listen to the scrape and feel the gentle vibration of the knife as it makes its way along the stone. I always start with my French knives, then move along to boning knife, then paring, and I finish with my fillet knife. I go this route because the shape of the blades of the French knives, boning knives, and paring knife are similar and therefore, require similar motions when sharpening. The fillet knife has a more curved blade and so the motion has to be adjusted midway through in order to sharpen the entire length of the blade. I run them individually over the medium grit stone, wipe them off, then move on to the next blade. Once they have all been passed over that stone, I repeat the entire process on the fine grit stone until they have an acceptable edge on them. An acceptable edge, to me, means one of two things: I can gently tap the knife onto one of my finger nails and it sticks, or I can gently lay the sharp edge of the blade across my fingers and feel it "grip" the first few layers of skin (don't try the second method unless you have cut yourself a lot - it isn't the safest method of inspecting your blades). Then I wipe them all off again, dry them thoroughly, and clean up my stone. Then the blades go back to their homes either in the knife block on my counter, or in their sheathes in my knife kit.

And since this post has the attention span on a first-grader, I'm going to talk about cutting myself. I have done it a lot. Almost immediately after you buy a new knife, it gets you. For some reason, this (almost) never happens when I'm using a knife that someone else owns. It is almost as if your new knife needs to taste you....feel you out so to speak. There is an inevitable nick that comes when you buy a new blade. I've never cut myself on purpose, but I'll be damned if I didn't know that a couple of them were coming. For example, the worst cut I ever sustained, I knew was going to happen about 30 seconds before it actually happened. In an interesting turn of events, I was using someone else's knife. It's a good thing I was, too, because my knife was not sharp at the time and the cut I would have sustained would have been exponentially worse. Anyway, the cut, the worst one. I was in my first ever final practical of culinary school, Culinary 101, Basic Skills. My risotto was on the stove and I was stirring furiously and the little bastard just wouldn't thicken and get creamy (the heat was too high). I hadn't had time to go get myself some parsley for garnish because of the risotto debacle. Luckily, my friend, George, (I think it was George, he was only in culinary school for that one class) had gone and gotten a bunch of parsley that was conveniently laying on his cutting board next to his freshly sharpened knife. George was at the stove with me. So I looked at him and made a deal, "George, if I chop all that parsley, can I use some of it for my risotto?" George was agreeable to my offer, so I turned my risotto down to low (which allowed it to thicken) and got chopping. A quick note about cutting things in the kitchen: the proper method is to curl your fingertips back on top of what you are cutting and hide your thumb behind it. I knew this. I know this. Parsley doesn't like to stay in one uniform, compressed bunch so you can chop it easily. It flops all over the place so as to make it as difficult on you as possible. So I started chopping with my fingers aligned properly. The parsley started acting like parsley. Not wanting to waste time (I was already in the weeds), I just started to corral the parsley back into a bunch with my thumb as I was chopping (I was going as fast as I could at that point, which, at that point in my knife skills, required me to slam the blade down with the full weight of my arm). As soon as I started moving my thumb, I knew what was coming. There was no doubt in my mind that my thumb was to become fodder for a freshly sharpened blade. And it did. I slammed the knife down and I felt it stop at the bone of my left thumb. I immediately screamed the "fuck" word. The whole class turned and looked at me. I was already on my way to the sink to rinse out the wound. I put a bandage and a glove over it and fought on to finish. That first glove filled with blood pretty quickly. I asked my friend, Joe, for help. We went back to the sink, washed it up, but on another bandage as tightly as possible, and then another bandage "upstream" from the wound to act as tourniquet, then, another glove. The bleeding stopped. I aced the practical portion and then went on to ace the written portion as well.

There are two funny things about this story. The first is that I apologized to my chef instructor when I brought my risotto up for her to grade. On the first day of class she told us that we were not allowed to cut ourselves in her class. I had broken a rule and so I apologized. The second is that I can still think about that moment and actually feel and hear the knife as it cut through my finger and finger nail. The nail made a very distinct "pop" as the knife cut it. Every time I think about it, it makes me shudder. Also, every time I am chopping any kind of herb, I think about it.

The sharpening of my knives has become a meditation for me. It was the first truly meditative experience of my adulthood. It is mundane....and boring. And I often times put it off so I can do other, more interesting things with my time, but it has become this really beautiful moment of solitude that I often long for. There is sound and movement and touch. And there is pay-off, as well (yes, I enjoy playing with my freshly sharpened knives). The next time I use my knives, I inevitably feel the ease of the newly sharpened blade. Cutting becomes effortless. Rather than having to exert down-force on the knife, I merely have to lift it off the cutting board, simply guide the blade to where I want the next cut to be, and relax my hand as the blade slips through whatever I happen to be cutting. It is poetry.

So keep your tools sharp. Regardless of whether your tool happens to be a knife or your mind or your body, keep it sharp. Do the scheduled maintenance and it will last you a long time.

Peace and Love,

Friday, April 6, 2012

A Piece of Me, to You

This piece is dedicated to the 29 beautiful souls who held my hand as we walked together on the journey through our 200 hour yoga teacher certification last fall.  I feel like I short changed them all because I got scared when ending our final session together. So my teacher, Claire, planted a seed in the fertile soil (manure? compost? hehe) that resides between my ears when she said to me, "I still can't believe you fucked that up." Her comment ate away at me until I could make it right. And so this is my humble attempt at making it right. I hope the 29 of you enjoy it because you all are fucking amazing!

Also, in the name of full disclosure, I have to admit that my original intent with this piece was to have it ready for the closing of my next teacher training. But like I said, I feel like I short changed my fellow students and that it would be irresponsible of me to sit on this without sharing it with them. Also, I wrote this with the thought that it would be a spoken word piece. So make sure you read it like I would say it.

Side note to my teacher training friends, if you want to hear me do this out loud, make your voices heard! Send me some messages and I will have it ready for the next time we get together for dinner.

Claire says I fucked up the last one
so I wrote this one before we were even half done.
But I'm just havin' some fun
So grab some
bench and get comfortable.
Cuz Claire also says I need to be more vulnerable.
So here goes.

My shit won't come up by itself.
So I reach for a puke bag
like I got jet lag
and I drink
then pay homage at another porcelain god
after I gave another bottle the head nod.
While talkin' about where I trod
I'd start thinkin', "My god!
Where the fuck am I going?
What kind of seeds am I sowing?
What kind of weeds have I been growing?"

June Eighteen Twenty Ten
That's the day when
I made my peace.
No lie,
I knew I was gonna die.
But the winds kicked up
and blew me off course.
I was struck by a force
of nature.
And in a stroke of luck,
nothing major,
I took solace in safe harbor.
At the bottom of another bottle.

Bad relationships, I've had a few.
Then again, too few to mention.
Alright, I'll make one exception.
We were so connected.
I can't even say how many happy memories we collected.
Then, for a month, she was going to Europe.
And I almost threw up
Cuz she was to stay with her ex.
Almost had me convinced they wouldn't have sex.
So I asked her, "What is love?"
And she told me, "My love is like a sandwich."
So I told her, "I hope you die slow, you fuckin' bitch!"
But my anger wasn't about her.
I was left feeling like a mangy, unlovable cur.
Years later, she came around for a victory lap.
And we got down to that slappity, slap.
But that sex wasn't about connection.
It was simply misdirection.
Merely baby food for the ego.
And that's as far as we go.
What scares me most,
What I don't understand,
I that I still love her.

July Three Two Zero One Zero
Enter: A tiny, blue-eyed hero.
She calls me brother.
Gave me a gift that
changed my life.
A simple yoga mat
taught me how to deal with strife.
I don't have words that can express my gratitude
for the change in attitude
that she helped me find.
I used to get stressed out.
Now, I just move from one place to another with the breath stretched out.

I want to share a few things I've learned
cuz I've been burned
and been turned
'til I had the spins.
So now I teach
because I like to share my experiences with others.
(Full Disclosure: I stole the wording for the first two)
1. If lost I gotta ask, "What's the task I've been given?" Cuz if I miss what I pass on the path when it twists, there'd be no journey in the visit like it already happened, but didn't.
2. The page I always skip is the one that keeps repeating itself.
3. It is sometimes okay to steal.
4. Nouli makes you poo.
5. The things we hate about others are the things that we hate about ourselves.

Y'all, it ain't easy to tell you what I see.
Even harder to say what I feel.
But now I stand before you,
Nothing more than an
And I'm just trying to be.
And connect with something real.

Peace and Love, Y'all,

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Value of Vulnerability, Reprised

I have been making a conscious effort in my day to day life and with my clients to be more vulnerable. It has been working out for me. I am attracting the types of people into my life that I want to attract into it.

Example the first: I was having dinner with a group of folks from my yoga teacher training. The dinner was going as they tend to do. There was much talking and carrying on. A good time was being had by all. People were finishing up their meals, plates were being cleared. The conversation veered toward eating habits. Specifically my eating habits (for those who don't know, I eat Paleo style). The question arose as to why I decided to make this choice. My first instinct, as it has been for a while, was to look down at my hands and sort of curl into a ball and hide because I was (and maybe still am) ashamed of the fact that the reason I choose to eat Paleo is because I want eight-pack abs. I did, however, express that I was doing it for the eight-pack. One of the more perceptive ladies in the group immediately called me on my shame (thanks, by the way). She made me laugh because she just said, "Oh, look how ashamed he is of that." And I couldn't argue so I just agreed. And laughed at myself for being vain and shallow.

Example the second: I was at my new clients' house for the first time. One of them asked me what started me on my journey towards wellness. Again, my first reaction was to curl into a little ball. Then I heard my teacher's (you know who you are) voice in my head saying, "Be more vulnerable." And so I told the story about how I was really overweight, had heartburn everyday, was drinking....a lot, and I had gotten to a point where I vomited blood. Twice. So I started learning and teaching myself about what was good to eat and what wasn't. I started to practice yoga. I went to Toronto and took my Holistic Lifestyle Coaching class with a world class teacher who I am now proud to count on my list of friends. I told them about how I started feeling my body and getting in touch with myself. I talked about how, for the first time in my adult life, I knew I was walking down a path that suited me. I told them about my yoga teacher training and how transformational that was and continues to be. Through all of this I was finding my own power in my own vulnerability.

Example the third: I asked a woman out today (granted, it was via facebook, so please, go ahead and judge me as harshly as I am judging myself for being too cowardly to do it in person). She said "no". I knew she would before I asked. I did it anyway. I don't know what her reasoning behind that rejection is. It could be because we have a teacher (her)/student (me) relationship. It could be that she doesn't find me attractive. It is probably much more complicated than that simplistic coin flip. But whatever the reasoning behind it, I am very comfortable in my own ignorance of it. Looking deeper into this, I think that I acted for myself in this situation. I didn't act out of some macho desire to conquer. I didn't act out of some insecure need for validation from an astonishing human, being. I acted out of a genuine desire to get to know her better. I acted out of desire to connect with another person on a deeper, much more vulnerable level. I am actually really proud of myself right now. And I would like to express my gratitude to her (you also know who you are, different from the above if you don't know who she is) for allowing me the space to ask an honest, vulnerable, heart-felt question and for giving me a clear-cut response. So thank you!

And thank you to all of you that read this!

Peace and Love,

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Fine Line Between Meditation and Hallucination

Fair Warning: It's about to get weird in here. You were warned.

I went to a gong bath on Sunday evening. If you've never been, go. If you have been, the one at Elmhurst Yoga Shala on the first Sunday of every month is amazing.

Sarah and Stephanie are amazing humans, being. You will want to hug them immediately upon meeting them. I love them both dearly and I barely know them. In addition to being wonderful people, they have absolutely angelic voices. You read that right. They open with some chanting (I told you it was going to get weird) in Sanskrit while playing instruments with which I am completely unfamiliar. Regardless of my ignorance, this is a beautiful, peaceful, calming experience. Then they start to play the gong. There is an Earth Gong tuned to the sound of Aum (for those unfamiliar, Aum is said to be the sound of the universe). They beat (I'm not sure what the correct word is) the gong in myriad ways to produce different sounds from it. Sometimes it is just a gentle little graze with a mallet(?). Other times, it roars to a cacophonous volume. It never hurts your ears, though. Which is back to the weird theme that I established earlier.

This was one of the most intense meditation sessions I have ever had. It lasted for ninety minutes, but felt like ten. I'm serious. I couldn't believe that it was over when things started to wind down. Maybe it was just wishful thinking on my part, but I literally thought, "Intermission?!"

Now, because I am completely self-absorbed, let's talk about me! More fair warning: It is about to get weirder. Those of you who know me know that I enjoy the occasional use of hallucinogenic mushrooms. Strictly as an aid to my meditation practice, of course. At any rate, the gong bath put me into a state of meditation that I have never been in, outside of said fungal alteration. It was wild! So when I "woke up" afterward, I felt like I was coming down from a trip. When I was walking around, I was seeing auras, like I do while tripping. I floated off into a state between wakefulness and dream, like I do while tripping and (if I'm lucky) meditating. I experienced a state of immense clarity (I have no idea about what, though). It was a super powerful experience that I plan to have regularly.

This post would be incomplete without a GIGANTIC "thank you" sent out to the Sisters Starnes. You two are awesome. Thanks for doing what you do. Also, thanks to the universe for bringing these two into my life.

The only question I am left with is this: Do I mix the mushrooms with the gong? Only time will tell.

Peace and Love,

Monday, January 30, 2012

A Poem For My Sister

The second you walk into a room, everyone wants to be your friend.
It's like they know how awesome you are before they ever meet you.

Maybe it's because they can feel your warmth.
Like the sun gave you a little piece of itself to carry around.
I think that's it. Your smile could melt an iceberg.

Maybe they understand that you never have a mean word.
The sparkle in your bright blue eyes gives you away.
I think that's it. You see through the pain to the child inside.

Maybe they know that you say "Jeepers" and "Mothertrucker" because you would rather see people smile than say something offensive.
Your kindness and compassion is easy to feel.
I think that's it. You make people feel like they are important to you.

Even though you are more of a grown-up than I will ever be,
You'll always be my baby sister.

Mo, Mary, Kool Mo D, Mo Diggity,
You have become one of my greatest teachers. You inspire me everyday. Thanks for being you. You sniff farts!

Peace and Love,

Friday, January 20, 2012

My physical practice

I don't much talk about my physical practice much anymore. I'm not fully sure why. I think that in the grand scheme of things, it has just become a part of me. A part that I am certainly proud of, and proud to share with others, and still very focused on and interested in, but it has become less about my physical practice as of late. On that note, I am going to talk about my physical practice for a while.

What I have noticed is that my entire approach has changed completely. I still go really hard, but there is a certain softness that I can't fully describe or necessarily even comprehend that has infused my practice lately. I like it a lot. I think I blame a very specific teacher for putting the softness there. :) The intensity that I seek is still present, but I have found many varied layers of control in that intensity. I'm not sure if that fully makes sense. I know that is how it feels. The physical practice just matters less. It is still important, but it is just a tool and placing too much emphasis on the tool takes away from the value of the job/project. Breaking the tool brings us farther from the goal rather than bringing us closer to it. But there is value in the lessons learned from breakage, which is why we are granted injuries.

I'm not saying that I have stopped playing my edges. I am just approaching those edges in a completely different manner. Rather than doing my best impression of a bull in a China shop, I have found a soft gentleness when approaching my edges. I am much more playful with them and much more controlled. I have found myself closer to bouncing gracefully off of them rather than plowing through them.  My practice has taken on a "slow motion" sort of a feel. It has been an interesting change.

The softness has been pervasive in my life off the mat, as well. I have found that I am much more forgiving in my interactions with others. I am gentler with myself and with others. I think that too often we use soft synonymously with weak. That seems to me to be an inaccurate parallel. We can still be strong while treating ourselves and others softly and gently. This is something that is paradoxical, intellectually, but in practice, it is a thing of beauty. Maybe a little bit like life?

Peace and Love,

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Does Pain Equal Intimacy?

I used to think so. To some extent, I still do, but I think that maybe my paradigm has shifted slightly. I think that in my my distorted view of things, being able to share my physical pains with others was my attempt to expose my own vulnerability while still holding on to the illusion of my own invincibility. It was an attempt to say, "Hey, I'm just as fucked up emotionally as you are" while still being a hardass. I was chasing that emotional intimacy through the exposure of my physical pain, but it was an invitation to that intimacy without actually having to become intimate with someone. Clearly, this hasn't worked out very well for me.

I would do the same with fear. It has always been more comfortable for me to expose my fears in physical manifestations (skydiving, driving too fast, getting drunker/more fucked up than anyone else in the room). Those sorts of things have always been easy for me. Put on a parachute. Walk to the door. Jump. Grow wings on the way down. Simple. Everyone is afraid in that situation. It is a very comforting sort of fear because of that (just for the record, I am still planning to get a skydiving license, CM).

But physical pain and fear are easy. They can be found without really looking or trying. They are fleeting compared to what you can feel emotionally.

What is truly frightening to me is standing completely naked with someone. But that can't be forced. It takes time. It takes trust. And I am starting to believe that it takes a lack of sex, for a while at least. Of course, I am obviously speaking of romantic relationships, but I am starting to believe that before we have THAT sort of physical intimacy, the emotional intimacy has to be in place. In order to BE naked with someone, you have to STAND naked with them first. That's fucking difficult, for me, anyway.

I kind of had this song on the brain while I was writing this post. I've liked this song for a long time and I think that the sentiment is great, but it seems to me like it would be better to stand naked regardless of whether someone is going to stand naked with you. Details, I guess. It's just a song.

One last thing that I have to lay out there. This has been a purely intellectual exercise for me so far (as far as I can tell, anyway). Furthermore, I have exactly zero idea of how I am going to get this out of my head and into my heart. On some level, I think that this blog is helping me to do that, but I also think that I will actually have to go out and have a relationship with a real, live human being and actually allow myself to be vulnerable within the context of it.

Peace and love,