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Chef Life: So you think you can slice a tomato?

Everything I thought I knew about cooking has just changed. It’s not that I can’t cook. Or that I’ve been operating under the delusion that I am a good cook and someone’s proven me wrong. No, this is restaurant cooking. Being a great home cook doesn’t really apply, and I found this out when I learned how to slice a tomato.

I was a week into my new job working as a chef at the Victoria. I had been helping Scotch Egg on the larder for a few days, and then suddenly I was placed on the sauce section. I’m not sure about other restaurants, but the chefs at the Victoria know how to work every section whether it be larder, sauce, or pastry. It works well because when things get hairy, everyone has the knowledge to jump in and help.

The chef I was working with that day was just another baby by society’s passing judgment, but at 23-years-old, he had already been a pupil of Angela Hartnett’s and was now given considerable responsibility. The first task he assigned was to cut a few tomatoes in half. Once that was done, I was suppose to drizzle them with olive oil, sprinkle a little salt and fresh thyme, and then place them under the grill. Simple, I thought. I made the first cut, and just when I was about to continue, he said, “Wait, wait, wait. Show me how you cut that because there’s a certain way to do it.” I pushed the two halves towards him wondering what he could possibly do differently. “Yeah, that’s wrong.” he said. “See this bit? You want to slice it the other way”.

The wrong way

What Tomato Half showed me was that there actually is a membrane that runs down the middle of a tomato. It basically separates the seeds into two pockets. If you cut parallel to the membrane, you’ll end up with one half that reveals a layer of membrane instead of nice, beautiful seeds. Cut perpendicular to the membrane, and you always end up with two halves with picture perfect seeds.

It was painfully obvious, but never had I noticed this before. Why would I? When had I ever needed that level of detail in my cooking? What should have been a simple task made me feel like the ultimate retard. As I continued to slice, I was actually having to think about how I was holding it. How did Tomato Half do it, again? Which way was the “front”? Was there a front? With the extra mind power I was expending, I was moving at a snail’s pace. Eventually, I taught myself a little trick to figure out which way the membrane was positioned, and gradually I picked up speed. When the tray was finally sliced, salted, and grilled, I could put that puppy to bed.

As I continued working with Tomato Half on other things, I began to realise that I could not rely on my own judgment or culinary knowledge anymore. This was not my kitchen, and I wasn’t playing by my rules. For all I knew, there was probably a “right” and a “wrong” way to boil water. From then on, I made sure that I confirmed every detail before I even attempted to execute. “How thin should I slice this? With the grain or against it? How fast should I stir this? How should I lay this on the tray?” Sometimes I felt like I was asking a lot of stupid questions. But just when I thought I knew the answer, I was given instructions that were slightly different than what I had expected. The basic principles were there, but outlined in a much more specific manner.

I suppose one might think that this military mind set behind the food isn’t much fun, but without it, the consistency that people expect when they order a meal would be lost. The good news is that the more shifts I work, the easier it gets. And you can be sure that I will never cut a tomato the wrong way again.

Since I am usually too busy too take photos at the restaurant, these photos are a "reconstruction" of my tomato lesson. I needed to do something with the tomatoes afterward, so the result is this salad -tomato with coriander salsa verde and brie.

7 Comments

  1. Tom

    Now I know I should only be thinking of all the wonderful HK food I should be eating atm but mmm.

  2. Kavey

    Fascinating!
    So are you going to share with us how one can tell where this membrane is?
    :)

  3. Sarah, Maison Cupcake

    Duh – am having a Homer Simpson style moment here, why didn't I notice this sooner?! It's absolutely true yet I've spent three decades slicing tomatoes with it being hit and miss whether I get them the right way or not. I will look at them very carefully in future and to try gauge getting them done the right way!

  4. Jen

    Well guys, I know Tom is telling me not to leave you in suspense. I tried to think of a way to explain this technique with an x and y axis, but it got too complicated so I'm just going to tell you what I do.

    I have a rather crude way of telling, and I hope I can explain how to do this correctly. First, look down on the top of the tomato and position it so it looks like a little bum (so you see two plump cheeks with the "stem" in the center). Take your knife and slice perpendicular to the "bum" (so if it was a person you just separated their torso from their legs).

    Bizarre, I know…but it works for me.

  5. Lost in the Larder

    Thats really cool, I never realised and what's more, I love grilling half tomatoes, at least now I can step my game up with some consistency. Thanks.

  6. Jen

    LITL -Glad to help. It's really amazing the tiny details that can make a big difference in your cooking.

  7. ge

    hmm.. thanks for that tip. i always cut the wrong way, especially onions. but think practice really makes it better.

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