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Posted: July 25, 2013

To catch a falling knife

A moment when judgment must trump instinct

Laura Cook Newman

One of the first lessons freshmen learn in Culinary School is, “Never catch a falling knife.”  There’s no formal curriculum for this; do it once, and consider the lesson learned 

This goes against every instinct we have.  Our hands react before our brain interrupts, “I wouldn’t if I were you…”

Knee-jerk reactions usually keep us safe.  For example, you slam on the brakes and instinctively extend your right arm to “protect” your kid in the passenger seat – even when you’re driving by yourself.

So it makes sense that you want to catch a falling knife, but you know you shouldn’t.  The knife-dropping scenario is the precise moment when judgment overrides instinct.

We’re often told to trust our instincts.  I contend that the seasoned professional should “consult your judgment” as well.

I worked at Nordstrom many years back.  During orientation, they handed us a piece of paper the size and thickness of a postcard.  On one side it read, Employee Handbook.  Our leader signaled us to flip it over, and we obliged.  Revealed on the opposite side was simply “Use your best judgment."

I liken it to a corporate version of “WWYD? (What would YOU do?)”

Even though I wasn’t wearing a brightly colored rubber bracelet, before I bothered my manager with minutia, I’d ask myself “Am I using my best judgment?  Can I figure this out on my own?”

As a corporate trainer, I get asked a lot of questions by new hires.  I welcome these questions – it inspires trust, and quite frankly, it’s my job.  These folks are eager yet unsure, so they play it safe and ask me how to do “such ‘n such."

It reminds me of struggling with algebra in high school.  I’d ask my father, a math whiz, for help. I just wanted the answer for x, but he actually wanted me to figure it out.  Can you believe the nerve of this man?

And I want my colleagues to figure it out, too, not just give them the answer. So as long as they’re not screaming “WHERE’S THE (expletive) FIRE EXTINGUISHER?!?” I usually respond, “Use your best judgment.” 

If they cock their head to the side and stare at me blankly, I might back it up with “If I weren’t here, if this were your kitchen, what would you do?” 

Instantly they say, “I would probably debone the salmon before marinating it.”

Give people a fish, and they wait for instructions. Tell them to use their best judgment, and they get out the tweezers to remove the pin bones.

“Use your best judgment” has become my mantra, personally and professionally. This might not work if I were an ER Surgeon, but rarely am I saving lives in the kitchen.  The closest I’ve come to that is preventing a few nicks and scrapes when I tell my new hires, “And by the way – never catch a falling knife.”

Laura Cook Newman is a professional Chef and Training Manager for a Fortune 500 food manufacturer. She earned her chops at Johnson & Wales University, has an MBA in Marketing and hosts a blog for behind-the-scenes insights on the food service industry. Contact her at

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Readers Respond

Great examples and philosophy. I see you going beyond the excellent proverb quoted, although I may be mincing words: you aren't teaching people to fish - you are helping others figure out how to fish. You are creating ownership by asking questions and setting a standard of using your best judgment to help others struggle and grow. I believe that helping people teach themselves can take them even further than teaching them a specific skill because the result after struggle is the confidence and skills to take on the next challenge - whether that be bison, bears, or broccoli! By Chris Hutchinson on 2013 08 05
When my granddaughter asks "How many marshmallows can I have?" I say, "How many do you want to eat? You're in charge." She's never been sick from eating too many marshmallows. I don't think we can start too young to say, consider the facts and trust yourself. Good article, Laura. By Andi on 2013 07 25
Falling knives and deboning fish...oh wait, this job is dangerous! However, only the strong of heart need company gives me this motto, "its better to ask for forgiveness than for permission" You may have taken the initiative and if it was not the right one, then hopefully youve learned from it! By Ruben on 2013 07 25
Let's tackle the important stuff first - deboning a fish. If you were served a beautiful salmon steak filled with pin bones at a restaurant, you'd be mighty peeved - and in possible need of the Heimlich. I like to learn tips and tricks from the veterans as well - learn from their mistakes and so forth. This article is perhaps for the more timid, ones that second-guess themselves and are always looking for "permission" to do their job. I worked with a crazy Sous Chef who would scream "I don't care how you do it, just make it happen!" during the rush. That's always stuck with me. Nordstrom just reinforced it in a more elegant way. By Chef Laura on 2013 07 25
Interesting take on dealing with neewbies, and as long as they can't cause permanent damage to themselves or the company, a great way to get them to engage. But as a seasoned professional I am more interested in doing my job better/faster/cheaper etc. I often seek out others with similar "time on the job" or total outsiders to bounce ideas off. I find great value in seeing a situation from a different vantage point. In those cases I don't want to hear "use your best judgement", I already have, now I need pointers.......... Thoughts? By Use the Force, Luke on 2013 07 25
Why debone a fish before marinating? What does that accomplish? By Clueless in the kitchen on 2013 07 25
I've found that when I start a new job, one of the fastest ways to command respect is to approach your manager/boss first with the issue at hand, then present your solution, and then ask if it fits within the confines of the situation. This shows that you researched the matter and then came to a conclusion on how to resolve the situation, yet allows that you may not know all of the facts and are wise enough to recognize it. By Been there, done that, have a scar to prove it on 2013 07 25
I bet Dad also invoked the Chinese proverb: "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish, feed him for a lifetime." By Pater Familias on 2013 07 25
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