Hired to weigh and wrap cuts of meat at an Asian market in Stockton, Calif., Som Phengphanh soon was carving up carcasses under the butchers' supervision.
The job honed Phengphanh's knife skills years before he enrolled in culinary courses and joined the kitchens at Ashland's Thai Pepper and Kobe restaurants.
"If you're not trained to cut, then you'll cook like mom," says the 33-year-old chef and owner of Cafe Nom-Yen in Ashland.
Untrained cooks also risk cutting themselves — one reason knife-skills classes at Allyson's Kitchen are well-received and worth holding several times per year, says Dawn Smedley, the Ashland gourmet store's cooking-school coordinator.
"You just walk away feeling much more confident," says Smedley, who also enrolled in Phengphanh's most recent knife-skills class at Allyson's in December. "It's the foundation of being efficient inside your kitchen."
The upcoming series of three classes begins Monday, Jan. 24, with the most common cuts — chopping, mincing, slicing and dicing — progresses the following week through boning chicken and filleting fish and concludes Feb. 7 with dissecting unusual fruits and using a paring knife to whittle them and other foods into intricate garnishes.
"Watching him with the knife ... it's like an art form," Smedley says of Phengphanh's demonstrations.
The classes, however, aren't about entertaining audiences in the style of Chinese cleaver-master and television chef Martin Yan. Students should come prepared to wield Allyson's knives and are encouraged to bring their own from home.
"It's always nice to learn with what you already have," Smedley says.
Phengphanh helps participants try out numerous styles and brands of cutlery to identify one they like. Yet he discourages the purchase of too many knives. A chef's knife, a carving or fillet knife and a paring knife are the only essential blades in a kitchen, he says.
"Some people are afraid of knives," he says. "They don't find the knife that they're comfortable with."
Enrollment in the classes grants a 10 percent discount on Allyson's merchandise, which includes numerous sale-priced knives. Students can take the entire series or just one session.
Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or e-mail email@example.com.