Crawling Back with Cleaver

By John Birdsall | May 05, 2015
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john birdsall nordstrom cafe by dan bransfield
John Birdsall in a former life. Illustration by Dan Bransfield

I’m still haunted by the way it all just imperceptibly went to shit.

In the 1980s, a boy took me on a lunch date to Greens restaurant. I ordered a salad with apples and Stilton. Looking out at the Marin headlands, knowing that the ruffled green and bronze-tinted lettuces in front of me had grown in soil just beyond the rise of the hills, at the restaurant’s farm: It struck something in me, like a hammer on a temple bell. A meaning I couldn’t quite decipher seemed locked in every part of that salad, the folds and rounded lobes of its leaves.

I persuaded Greens to take me on as a prep cook, even though I’d never worked in a restaurant before. I chopped herbs, washed the lettuces that rumbled in every morning on the farm’s ancient, hulking truck.

For years, as I jumped from restaurant job to restaurant job, cooking was my reason for living. There was this ineffable quality in a correctly made dish that would strike, like the temple bell of that first Greens salad, cracking open the universe to me. 

My life became a quest to unlock meaning in the depth and roundness of a well-made broth coaxed from muscle and bone, or in the knife-tip balance of sweetness, tang and phantom bitterness in an applesauce, still warm, from the first summer Gravensteins.

Cooking was my craft and my moral code, a way of organizing experience within lines that’d been drawn by something (or someone) way beyond me. It was my ethos.

And then around 2000, a few years before I became a food writer, I realized I’d lost it, my desire to cook, my need to. I was changing jobs faster—I told myself if I lasted 12 months at a job, I wasn’t a total loser. My last year in the kitchen I was supervising the Nordstrom café at Westfield Centre, overseeing cooks assembling sodden tuna melts and Chinese chicken salads embalmed in hoisin and cheap oils, with lifeless greens that arrived, washed and bagged, from Sysco. If I cared it would have been humiliating, but I didn’t care. Meaning had abandoned me. The temple bell was silent.

When I tried to cook at home I felt impatient and disconnected, thinking about the mess, the pots and bowls piling up in the sink. Even after I clocked my year and quit the Nordstrom job, tossed my wicked-smelling kitchen clogs and, with my husband’s blessing, pursued food writing, I almost never cooked. Cooking was the dead limb I didn’t have the courage to amputate, thinking (or hoping) that someday I’d get feeling in it again.


Last year I began to experience the first faint needle pokes of kitchen desire. I’d gotten a copy of Twelve Recipes by Cal Peternell, and something about the book—Peternell’s mix of zeal and forgiveness, his grounding in the reverently simple style of Berkeley cooking I’d grown up with—stirred something in me. I cooked broccoli rabe in my cast-iron skillet, made tomatoey pastas, simmered beans. For the first time in forever I felt happy in the kitchen, engaged, not like I just wanted to get it over with. Maybe my passion was reviving. 

I considered my shelves of neglected cookbooks with faded spines, books that changed my life. I pulled out a Ken Hom book from 1981, Chinese Technique. It’s big and has a white paper jacket, blotchy around the edges, where my greasy ghost hands once held it. They’ve emerged over time as a yellow penumbra, like invisible ink that takes years to reveal a message. I opened the book to a black and white photo, shot through a gritty filter of documentary verité, of Hom’s hand on the hasp of a cleaver.

The Chinese cleaver, unlike the French chef’s knife, is an extension of the human hand. Europeans couldn’t conceive of the knife as anything but a refined weapon, a saber shrunk down to cope with turnips, honed for the table, still dangerous. But the cleaver is an implement of qi, a steel membrane in balance with the counterweight of the upper arm, guided by the pivot of the elbow and the fulcrum of the wrist, animated by energy flow, restrained by wisdom. You can split a carapace with the spine of a cleaver or employ its blade to turn chunky rhizomes into feathery wisps.

In Zhuangzi’s famous story of butchering oxen, the cook’s cleaver finds a path through the carcasses “guided by natural line, by the secret opening, the hidden space,” avoiding cartilage and rib, never needing the sharpener’s stone. It’s a Taoist parable about working in harmony with the life force, plugging into the universe’s vast ethernet network to access a shared channel and then surrendering to it, knowledge expressed as movement.

I remember my day off from the restaurant, 25 years
ago, when I took the Geary bus to Japantown, descended to the basement of Soko Hardware and bought a Chinese cleaver—this cleaver, the one I’m unwrapping now from my old knife roll to show, a little self-consciously, to Alex Ong, longtime chef at Betelnut, who now consults and cooks at private gigs.

“It’s a good one,” Ong says, bouncing it lightly in one hand, testing the balance. “Well made. This will last forever.”

This is exactly why I got in touch with him, why we’re here, in a small, dim kitchen in San Francisco run by Ong’s friend, a former cook of his. Ong has laid out his collection of half a dozen Chinese cleavers, some in sheaths he’s made by strapping duct tape around cardboard. I’d asked if he could show me—remind me—how to work with a cleaver. Ong offered to demo a couple of dishes for me to learn, and I said yes, absolutely, to see if maybe, just maybe, it’d be possible for me to climb my way back to the kitchen, and recover the meaning I’d lost.


What Ong made for me that day were two dishes that exist in symbiosis with the Chinese cleaver. The first, garlic chive and turnip omelet, really a kind of wok scramble: a soft hash of fine egg curds serving as a matrix for wilted bits of Chinese chive and tiny cubes of salted turnip. Delicious.

But it was the second, a Fujian pork noodle soup, I assigned myself as homework, a chance to rechristen my cleaver. Ong gave me the recipe, which he’d scribbled on scratch paper, a printout of a coupon from a sporting goods store (he and his wife have a couple of kids, both boys). Ong was born in Malaysia, though his dad has Fujianese roots, and this soup is the simplest and homiest of things: pork Ong minced with double cleavers as we talked, stir-fried with ginger and garlic, hot bean paste and fermented mustard greens, with stalks of yu choy, the slightly more delicate cousin of Chinese broccoli.

Ong grasped an identical Chinese cleaver in each hand, then rhythm-chopped a heap of sliced pork butt into an intentionally imperfect mince. He brought his cleavers
down hard, raising his voice so I could hear him above the double-tattoo of blades on board, pausing to deftly spread the hash with the cleaver blades to check if it was fine enough for the wok.

In the wok, he added a few ladles of simple chicken stock he’d simmered from the bones, feet and the terminal joints of wings, dropped in wheat-flour noodles, cooked separately, and that was pretty much it.

Ong and I slurped it from bowls, and it seemed like the easiest thing in the world. What stood out, especially, was the texture of the pork. Unlike meat you buy already ground, which cooks up homogenous and a little dry, Ong’s cleaver hash—a mass of slightly irregular bits—was juicy. It had character, dimension, something you could never achieve with a stand mixer’s grinder attachment. It was the cleaver, actually two cleavers working in tandem, I was tasting.

A week later, I stood at the entrance of Sun Tin Sung Market in Oakland’s Chinatown, empty cloth shopping bag over my shoulder and Ong’s sporting-goods store coupon-recipe in my hand, and thought: fuck. 

Back when I was cooking I lived for shopping excursions like this, probing new worlds, squeezing into unknown places, asking for help or dealing on my own. It was clear I was rusty. I had to will myself into the crush of sharp-eyed women inspecting greens, figure out the pork counter’s confusingly nonlinear (but actually quite orderly) queue. Taiwanese five-spice powder, a chicken (a blank-eyed cadaver with delicate ribcage, enormous feet, and healthy yellow fat) for stock—I worked it all out. Except for the noodles. Sun Tin Sung and two other markets didn’t have the proper thick cylindrical ones Ong had used. Instead I got flat ones, like fresh linguine.

The thing about using a cleaver is that it isn’t just about using a cleaver—I mean, not just about cutting, chopping or thwacking. It’s about adhering to the discipline of the cleaver. For mine, it meant putting an edge back on the neglected blade. I found my double-sided sharpening stone (fine on one side, medium-fine on the other), wrapped in a crisp and yellowed old kitchen towel, and bought honing oil. 

Nobody cooks seriously without submitting to an apprenticeship, and nobody cooks a proper Fujian pork noodle soup without considering the condition of their cleaver. 

I spent half an hour honing, trying to get the angle of blade against stone just right, my fingers trying to remember the right tension: blade sweep against stone; flip; blade sweep against stone. I’d start to put an edge back, then my angle would shift and I’d take it off again. My cleaver ended reasonably sharp (and by “ended,” I mean I looked at the clock and decided I had to get on with chopping if we were ever going to eat), better than it’d started but a couple of time zones away from pristine. 

Recovering my passion would take more than an afternoon I knew that. Like Zhuangzi’s story of the ox butcher, Alex Ong’s pork noodle soup reminded me that cooking is a skill of diligence, of the unglamorous work of getting things ready, of honing. My soup was fine, not as good as Ong’s, not even close. My single, sort-of sharp cleaver made the mince tough and a little dry—I was battering the pork fibers, bruising as I chopped. My soup was a failure, not of cooking, but of patience. 

Back when cooking was my whole life, the times I achieved a dish, a taste, I was proud of trailed hours of failure behind it, dragged heavy feelings of dissatisfaction, of frustration, for the ones that didn’t make it. I’d forgotten that. Ong’s soup made me respect my cleaver, gave me a glimmer of what it would take to be good again. It humbled me.

Sometimes, despite your best intentions, things just go to shit, but maybe—if you’re lucky—it’s only the first step on some long grok-crawl back to meaning. Me, I’m trying to cook the best meal I can on Sundays, my one day of the week when I let myself strain to hear the temple bell again, and I can hang out with Alex Ong, Cal Peternell, Zhuangzi’s ox butcher and the cook I used to be. 

The rest of the week I’m just keeping my cleaver honed: blade sweep against stone, flip; blade sweep against stone.

Recipe: Fujian Pork Noodle Soup by Alex Ong


Crawling Back with Cleaver, was published in the Spring 2015 issue © 2015 Edible San Francisco. Illustration © 2015 Dan Bransfield.

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