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R&IEditorial Archives2002 — August 15 — Operations

Any Way You Slice It
Choppers, slicers and dicers augment knife skills in the professional kitchen

Jamie West’s lobster martini isn’t complete until the appetizer’s mound of lobster bites is topped with a thin, lattice-cut potato wafer. To get the fine, uniform potato gaufrettes he wants, West relies on a French mandoline.

Executive chef at San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif., overseeing the resort’s fine-dining Stonehouse Restaurant and more casual Plow & Angel Bistro, West rates the mandoline as one of three essential tools in his kitchen, joining chef’s and paring knives.

No matter how menus change, the mandoline is in use daily, he says. Its adjustable, razor-sharp blade—across which vegetables or other foods are carefully pushed—produces slices with “an ease, versatility and consistency that can’t be matched” by knives, West says. Interchangeable blades produce flat, rippled or latticed slices; matchsticks; juliennes (for summer squash and zucchini slices that currently accompany lobster on the Stonehouse menu) or shreds.

Although mandolines are equipped with a carriage to hold food and keep fingers safe, the tool has “a danger factor,” West concedes. “But as long you respect it, there won’t be problems.”

As with knives, mastering the mandoline is a training issue. “You have to be aware of what you’re doing and appreciate that the end of a potato is not as important as your fingertip,” West says.

Slicing is a fundamental task in any foodservice kitchen and the mandoline is only one of several tools West employs to slice, dice, chop or grate in quantity.

In addition to the large French mandoline, West also has a smaller, Japanese model that he finds works better with more-delicate foods. And a turning slicer transforms a beet, radish or other vegetable into continuous, thin strips West often uses as garnishes. Deep-fried potato ribbons occasionally dress up plates in West’s restaurants.

That delicatessen mainstay, the electric spiral slicer, is West’s choice for thinly slicing heavier or more dense foods such as meats, firm-fleshed fish such as tuna (for sashimi), cheese or tough, starchy foods such as the taro root West sometimes uses.

Slicing doesn’t always cut it, however. There are times when a chef needs to get rough, and when that’s called for, a wide variety of all-purpose and specialty slicers, graters, choppers and cutters are available.

The electric food processor has usurped the role of many gadgets in some operations, but traditionalists who prefer hand-operated cutting and chopping equipment haven’t abandoned box or plane graters, finding these provide more control. Processors are fast but not the tool of choice for gently zesting a lime. Grater/shredder attachments for mandolines also provide slower, more controlled cuts.

Volume separates professional from home kitchens. When salads or slaw need to be made quickly and in quantity, equipment suppliers offer a variety of countertop cutters to transform heads of lettuce into piles of wedges or thin strips. Gadgets that can do the same gentle but firm trick for tomatoes, producing uniform slices for salad bars, also are available.

Weary prep cooks may lobby for wall-mount versions of tabletop cutters. These heavy-duty helpers can ease dicing bags of onions for soup or slicing potatoes for house-made french fries in wedges or shoestrings. And the popularity of sliced, battered and fried onion appetizers such as Chili’s Grill & Bar’s Awesome Blossom has spurred marketing of cutters that can produce a shift’s worth of “onion flowers” in minutes. And does a truffle deserve less than to be thinly shaved with a specialty truffle slicer?

No gadget is better than a sharp knife in a trained hand, says West, but he’s not abandoning his slicers.

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