The Arrogance of Competence

The kitchen can be a dangerous place.  We all have stories of slicing ourselves with a knife, lifting off a pot lid and getting a steam burn, and leaving a layer of skin in with the onions from the mandolin.

I was reminded yesterday–fortunately without major incident–that paying attention when you’re working in the kitchen is a really good idea.  I was roasting some beets.  They were the small, golden beets that we like to use in a number of different ways for salads.  I was kind of daydreaming as I cut the tops and root bits off the beets with a chef’s knife.  The chef’s knife was the right tool for this particular job–sharp, thick-bladed, and heavy.  The beet-trimming went without cuts, and the oven-heating went without mistakenly picking up a tray without a glove on.

My mistake was using the wrong tool for the rest of the job.  Beets, like potatoes, need some pokes before roasting to make sure they don’t explode.  So I poked them with the chef’s knife.  These beets were barely larger than a golf ball, and here I am with a giant knife, just trying to make contact.  After a few successful jabs, I missed once and poked the side of my index finger on the hand I was holding the beet with, right near the knuckle.  Fortunately, it didn’t sink in.

The thought came into my head (I’m playing it back right now in my mind, in super-slow-mo instant replay, John Madden drawing circles and lines on the teleprompter where this whole thing is going to go sideways) that I should probably get a paring knife or maybe even a fork to do this with.

What did I do?  I did what any reasonably competent, been working in the kitchen for 40+ years person would do.  I stabbed myself in the knuckle again with the chef’s knife.

It barely broken the skin, so there was no blood on the beets, but it got me thinking about how fortunate I was.  I know many of us like to cook, drink a glass of wine, blast the music, chat with our partner/friends/guests, etc., but it put me in mind of a time when I wasn’t quite so lucky (and I assume that I’m not a ship named Enterprise).

I cut my thumb rather badly while taking a knife skills course at the local kitchen store.  Yeah, I’ll let that sink in.  While taking a knife skills class.    How did I do it?  By not paying attention to what I supposed to be paying attention to.  I had diced a zillion onions in my life.  I didn’t even need this stupid class, I just took it because my wife wanted to and I wanted to hang out with her at the kitchen store.  I could dice this one and be yakking at the same time, right?  Fortunately, our friend Dr. Beverly lives close by, and she keeps a suture kit in her truck.

Every minute we’re in the kitchen, we’re a split second away from disaster.  Please pay attention to what you’re doing.  Don’t be like me and give in to the arrogance of competence.



About sheldonmenery

Sheldon Menery is a self-taught food and wine aficionado who has circled the globe in search of the riches it has to offer. He's wined and dined at some of the best (and worst) places in the world.
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