CHOPPING onions must be a cook's most irritating task. There are plenty of folkloric solutions - from holding the onion under a running tap, to chopping with a handkerchief in the mouth or a peg on the nose - but none offers permanent relief from the invariable, involuntary tears. ''There is no solution,'' said Swire Caterer's manager Adrian Ort decisively. ''Breathing through the mouth sometimes lessens the effect, but that's about all you can do.'' Not all common kitchen irritants are such a lost cause. To keep blood-pressure down, Hongkong's experienced chefs have a wealth of tricks up their long white sleeves. Yet they use them so often recollection is hard-won. ''It's difficult to think of them because they're done so unconsciously,'' said Mr Ort. ''After many years of use they become second nature.'' Heinz Egli, food and beverage manager at the New World Hotel, offered an alternative explanation. ''Cooking schools never teach shortcuts or tricks,'' he said. ''It compromises a finished dish and is seen as a form of cheating. ''I know many tricks myself, but I never show them to my chefs because I don't want them to learn a substitute for the real thing.'' Mr Egli would therefore disapprove of Lucy Humbert's sauce-making tip; if faced with a lack of cream, others would find it welcome. ''Just whisk in some cream cheese,'' said the private caterer. ''It works just as well in cream sauces.'' Eggs, along with sauces, are the most difficult dishes in a chef's repertoire. Their volatility attracts the greatest number of safety measures. A scenario familiar to many hosts and hostesses must be the last-minute preparation of a hollandaise sauce. The fish is cooked to perfection when the sauce decides to curdle. Next time it happens, stifle that blood-curdling scream and follow this tip from Mr Ort: ''Add two or three drops of cold water and whisk them into the sauce. It should bind in seconds.'' The same procedure also applies to mayonnaise, but use vinegar in place of the water. If you have wondered why Chinese scrambled eggs are never as fluffy when you make them at home, Annie Wong, chief home economist at Towngas Cooking Centre, offers an easy solution. ''Oil is the essential ingredient, and lots of it,'' she said. ''For four eggs you need four tablespoons of oil. Three go into the wok or pan and one gets whisked into the raw eggs. ''The hot cooking oil makes the eggs puff from the outside, and the oil in the egg makes them puff up from inside.'' Chef-manager of Cafe Afrikan Karen Wang's favourite tricks are also to do with making food taste better. ''Never salt steak until just before cooking,'' she advised. ''It draws out the meat juices and will give a much drier end result.'' The opposite is true of prawns: rub them with salt 10 minutes before cooking, rinse and repeat the process, and they will ''leech'' to give a much juicier texture after cooking. One of the most time-consuming kitchen tasks is not the cooking, but the preparation of raw ingredients. Nature may have provided us with unlimited bounty, but most of it needs a human touch before it is edible. Skinning tomatoes may seem unnecessary to amateurs, but professionals don't share their view. Perhaps it is because they know how to do it quickly. ''Pop them in boiling water for a few seconds and the skin comes away easily,'' said Mr Ort. ''This also works for fresh peaches.'' Boiling water makes skinning fish simple, too. ''Dip the round end of a fillet in hot water and the skin will begin to peel away.'' continued Mr Ort. ''Get hold of the end and tear the skin off away from you.'' When it comes to disasters, some have solutions and others don't. An over-salted stew or soup, for example, can be rescued by mashing up a cooked potato and stirring it in. Over-cooking eggs, however, is not so easily remedied, as Ms Wang learnt early in her career. ''Every cook learns the hard way,'' she said. ''I learnt to respect the fact that egg dishes need constant care. I was making a big batch of creme anglaise with 30 eggs, turned my back and returned to a pot of sweet scrambled eggs.'' If the top of a cake burns, let it cool, cut off the top - and turn the cake over. This works if the cake is only slightly burned. Anything more and it must be written off as experience and thrown away. ''Burned food cannot, as a rule, be salvaged,'' said Mr Ort. ''The taste permeates everything.'' TOP TIPS FROM THE EXPERTS Heinz Egli Put a small cup of baking soda in the fridge to prevent odours. To remove grease from hot stock, add ice-cubes and remove immediately with a slotted spoon: the fat hardens round the ice. Remove grease from a soup by laying a thick tissue over the surface: the tissue absorbs excess fat. Refresh tired lettuce by submerging in iced water. Adrian Ort Add a drop of oil to boiling water when cooking spaghetti to stop it sticking together. Garlic is easier to peel if you crush it slightly first. Annie Wong Chill the bowl and beaters to get more volume in whipped cream and egg whites. Use day-old cooked rice for perfect fried rice. Lucy Humbert Remove lemon and orange rind from a grater with a pastry brush. General tips Refresh day-old bread by sprinkling with a few drops of water, wrapping in foil and baking for five minutes. For stuffing hard-boiled eggs, swirl the water while eggs cook: the yolks will be perfectly centred. To cook baked potatoes quickly, pierce with a knife or skewer before baking. To get maximum juice from citrus fruit, place in hot water before squeezing.