Tools of the Trade: My Knife Set

This is a question that I’m sure many have come up more than once, with more than one home cook or chef in training…

“What are the knives that every chef (or serious home cook) should have?”

To that question, I respond with “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” (Stay with me, there is an answer…)

Before I started my journey, I tried to Google that same question. The answers were varied and diverse, and no two articles gave the same answer — kind of like looking for identical snowflakes while herding cats. It’s likely because that every home cook and chef is different; everyone has their own comfort levels with knives, have particular allegiances with a certain brand, have different budgets, or possess different kitchen utensils to use with said knives. Like the aforementioned snowflakes and cats, to each there is a need and to each there is a knife. You can ask a dozen chefs, and a dozen home cooks — everyone will give you a different answer, and it can be daunting to figure heads from tails.

In the end, with a little off-line help I was able to answer the question for myself (thanks in part to the work of the fine folks at Calgary’s Knifewear) and built a team of four that I use each day in my journey towards Red Seal-chefdom.

Meet the team...

Meet the team…

First off, before you even splash out your hard-earned Simoleons to purchase a knife — do your homework. Look into the knife in question, and look into the shop selling it to you. Check the maker, (and if you’re the type swayed by other users’ opinions) check the reviews. And if you get a chance to hold the knife of your dreams in person (most knife shops will allow it) and even test drive it (like Knifewear does), TAKE THE OPPORTUNITY TO DO IT. A knife is almost like a bonsai plant; if you take good care of it, it will provide you with years of well prepared meats and vegetables that you can proceed to make restaurant quality meals that will dazzle and amaze.

As for brands, there are three schools. There are your classic German stainless steel brands (J.A. Henckels and Wusthof), the American (Global, KAI (makers of the popular Shun line) and others), and there are the hundreds of Japanese brands, many of which are just single artisan blacksmiths that hand-forge, hand-sharpen and hand-carve their names onto carbon steel blades. Personally, I’ve found Masakage knives to be my brand of choice, even though the carbon steel is a little less tolerant to abuse (which you shouldn’t be doing to your knives anyway), but chances are you’ll probably find your own favourite(s). And with new knives coming into the market each day, chances are your choices will change as you go along, too.

So, what IS inside my knife bag? Let’s take a peek inside…

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The Main Event: The Chef’s Knife

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The one I use the most. Also known as Kyōka Suigetsu.

Every golfer has their favourite putter, every baseballer or cricketer has their favourite bat, so why can’t chefs have their go-to knives? Your chef’s knife is the one that does most of the heavy lifting cutting-wise, and in return should be the first knife that you reach for. (I’ve even given mine a name, but that’s a different story…)

The chef’s knife was first designed to take apart hunks of beast (but not the bone!) but over time have gradually played a more all-purpose role. There are two designs: German (where the edge curves from tip to butt) or French (where the curve only happens nearer to the tip). Most Japanese-made knives I’ve seen are usually of the French design, and it works great for me. However, perhaps you are more inclined with a blade that curves further for easier back-and-forth rocking while cutting? That is when the German design may work better for you. But at the end of the day, neither one is better…it’a all about what makes you happy!

As for me, at both Co-op and Eats of Asia, I reach for my chef’s knife (called a gyuto, which is Japanese for “cow sword”) for almost every task, ranging from dicing up dozens of pounds of onions during prep, to slicing the green onion and kimcheese waffles for plating up the Korean Chicken and Waffles. Most chef’s knives range anywhere between 8″ to 10″, and come with different names, with gyuto or santoku the two most common for Japanese models.

I have: Masakage “Koishi” 240mm (9.5 inch) Gyuto

The Sidekick: The Petty Knife

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For the smaller things in life.

Despite it being an all-rounder, the chef’s knife has its limitations. Say for example, I’m looking to neatly slice up some orange segments for the salad bar. That would mean slicing off the rind and pith without slicing off too much of the flesh, and then cutting each segment between the inner membranes. Try doing that dozens of times with dozens of oranges with a chef’s knife.

Can’t imagine doing it? I can’t either. And believe me, I tried. And it was…how should I put this gently? Hell? Yep, that sounds about right.

The paring knife (or in the Japanese knife parlance, the petty knife) might look like a small chef’s knife (ranging anywhere from 2″ to 6″), but in reality they are playing in different leagues, kind of like the Premier League vs. the Championship, or MLS and the NASL, or NFL and the NCAA…you get the idea. If you’re looking to carve a swan out of an apple for a beautiful presentation, or taking out the veins from prawns for a pot of Jambalaya, or taking out the seeds from a Serrano chili, or if you’re just wanting to dice just a couple of cloves of garlic; you’re treading on the paring/petty knife’s territory.

Price wise, this knife should the least expensive in your kit. I have found some acceptable paring knives for as little as $10 at the local department store. But in most professional settings, like pencils and pens at any school they are usually the first to disappear when you loan them to someone. As one of the chefs wisely advised me when it comes to paring knives, “stock up.”

I have: Maskage “Yuki” 120mm (4.5 inch) Petty

The Heavy Hitter: The Cleaver 

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When you want to break some bones (and meat, and sinew…)

Uh oh, looks like you’ve got a few chickens to take apart. Or maybe that bone-in prime rib needs to be de-boned. Or there’s some pork ribs that need cross-cutting? This is when you’ll need to break out the heavy artillery, and when I mean heavy artillery, I mean a good old fashioned cleaver.

Go to any Chinese BBQ restaurant, and chances are the pit master will wield a pretty heavy ass cleaver. It will break through most* bones, sinew, fat…everything, with one heavy swing. That whole roast duck? It’s now headless, and cut neatly into chopstick-friendly pieces. And the char siu (BBQ pork)? Same deal, and ready to be served on a bed of hot steamed rice with blanched greens. However, don’t be fooled by the Chinese chef who has what looks like a cleaver going gangbusters on a block of tofu or reducing a piece of boneless tenderloin into thin slices…what we’re talking about here and what they are using are not the same.

(* – Chicken bone, yes. Pork bones, yes. Beef bones? Maybe not…you’ll probably need a butcher’s bandsaw for that one.)

Being a Japanese knife fan (thank you for that, Kevin Kent…), I have tried to find a good Japanese or Chinese meat cleaver. However, I have yet to locate one of those, and with my Wusthof having dispatched more whole chickens into halves and quarters without much of a fuss so far, I’m pretty happy with it.

I have: Wusthof “Classic” 6-inch Cleaver

The Specialist: The Carving Knife

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When you need a long, smooth cut.

It’s prime rib night, and you’ve got hungry customers waiting to dig into slices of a freshly roasted-to-perfection hunk of Alberta beef (the best beef in the world, but then again I’m totally biased.) — that is when you break out the carving knife and get those prime ribs sliced up.

However, the carving knife can do more than just slice up the Thanksgiving turkey; it can take off the skin off a slab of pork belly before it’s braised for filling up dozens upon dozens on freshly steamed baos, or easily slicing up entire pork tenderloins into chops, or carving off slices of smoked salmon directly from the filet to crown a cream cheese-topped bagel (with lemon, pickled red onions and capers, if you so desire).

Some carving knives may come with “eyes” or “divots” for easy cutting , or some may even be serrated, and some are even electric. Personally I have forgone all those “luxuries” with my carving knife. With most knives, as long as it is sharp, it should be able to slice anything. Yes, even bread.

I have: Fujimoto 270mm (10 inch) Sujihiki

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There are a few other knives that I use on a daily basis, like a serrated knife for cutting up bread for sandwiches or cubing it for stuffing prep. Other chefs, depending on what they’re doing, will have different knives. A prep cook specializing in meats may have a boning knife or a honesuki, a sushi chef may have a fileting knife, or master Oyster shucker may have a Boston- or New Haven-style oyster knife. It’s almost as if each kitchen task has its own knife.

But no matter what you get, building your own knife set as a serious home cook or chef is not a cheap affair. Chances are, you will probably get a little bit of sticker shock by merely looking at the prices, but always remember that a good knife is like a good, stable investment. Think of it as buying a car: If you buy something that looks nice but will only last you a few years before it breaks down, then what’s the point? Pick something that lasts, but also give consideration something that you are comfortable with. Would you buy a Humvee if all you’ve driven are smart cars? I didn’t think so.

As for maintenance, a good ceramic honing rod is usually good to keep the edges sharp on most knives, whether they are German, Japanese or American, for a couple months (depending on how heavily you use your knife and how you treat it, of course). One common misconception about those, is that it sharpens your knife as well. No, it doesn’t; that is the job that oilstones and wetstones do, and that’s another conversation altogether. Just remember, of course, is that when you are honing, keep your knife at a certain angle (usually 15° for Japanese, 25° for European), and GO SLOWLY. What Gordon Ramsay does on MasterChef USA (or Hell’s Kitchen) looks cool, but it looks goofy professionally and doesn’t even do what it’s supposed to.

For keeping your knife edge safe, in style!

For keeping your knife edge safe, in style!

And also do consider purchasing protection for your knives (like a knife guard or a leather knife holster (on the right is a fine example of the latter, which was custom made from High Ridge, Missouri). Because a sharp knife is a safe, easy-to-use knife that slices easily with very little exertion, while a dull one is harder and more dangerous to use. Why? Because using a dull knife means you have to exert more force to get the job done, and by the same token raising the risk of cutting yourself exponentially…which if you’re an up-and-coming hand model, is very hazardous to your career. Your fingers will thank you for not cutting them!

And last but not least, please don’t use your knife to hack at anything. Not frozen food, not a tin can, nothing. Just promise me that much, okay?

 

So, what’s in your knife kit? What are the knives you use on a daily basis? Any brands you love? Let me know in the comments below!

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