Last spring, fed up with a knife block full of dull steel, I pulled out my copy of Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” and turned to the page I’d long ago dog-eared in anticipation of this very moment, the one in which Bourdain notes the following:
“Please believe me, here's all you will ever need in the knife department: ONE good chef's knife, as large as is comfortable for your hand. One chef's knife. This should cut just about anything you might work with, from a shallot to a watermelon, an onion to a sirloin strip.”
He goes on to mention a style and brand that recently had become quite popular with the culinary elite, a style and brand I promptly ordered from Amazon for a budget-busting $100. To say that the chef’s knife that arrived two days later was sharp would be a gross understatement—I drew blood just unboxing the thing when I barely nicked my thumb. But this was a small price to pay for the ability to cut through the skin of a tomato without exerting the pounds-per-square-inch force of a crocodile’s bite. And then there’s the wow-factor involved with my demonstrating to my disinterested family how I now could slice in half a Post-It note merely by pressing it lightly against the blade’s edge.
Perhaps because of its cost, perhaps because I was so taken by its performance or perhaps because its razor-sharp blade might chip when used against a hard surface such as bone, I quickly became possessive of my new baby. It was mine, I announced to the family one night as I gently towel-dried the knife’s vanadium stainless steel after a washing so tender one might think it had a fontanel. You ever need to cut something, I sniffed, feel free to use one of those “beginner” knives now relegated to the back of a kitchen drawer.
And then, not two weeks after my eyes were opened to the benefits of high-end cutlery, disaster struck. A large family gathering…the knife left unattended…an overzealous guest sneaking into the kitchen to hack himself a prime piece of ham right off the bone. I still get misty-eyed looking at the huge chip in the blade, a daily reminder to blacklist my entire extended family from future gatherings.
Lust. Possessiveness. Passion. All for a chef’s knife. And I can barely cook! Which begs the question: if a novice like me gets all worked up over the state of his knife, what about those who practice the culinary arts professionally?
For an answer, let’s turn to Creative Loafing Atlanta’s Brad Kaplan, who, in his piece “Atlanta Chefs and their Knives,” had this to say on the matter:
“To a chef, to a cook, to a butcher, the knife is everything. It is the universal tool of the trade, regardless of cuisine, regardless of ambition, regardless of status or celebrity. It is the physical manifestation of their ability to get it done in the kitchen. The knife can be a fetish, an object of desire, an obsession. Or it can simply be a tool — an object that through years and years of use disappears from the realm of objectivity and becomes an extension of the hand, an appendage fused with the chef who wields it. There's a reason Bravo's "Top Chef" chose to dispatch losers with the phrase, ‘pack your knives and go.’ Nothing else could cut closer to the heart of a chef's cooking. To ask a chef about his (or her) knives is to seek his outlook on his craft. Some are like proud fanboys…eager to show off their fanaticism and prove their merit, to demonstrate their dedication to the cult of the knife. Some are maintenance men, technicians, diligently sharpening, keeping things in order, and focused squarely on results.”
In other words, very worked up.
“Chefs don’t share their knives,” explains Eric Ripert, executive chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin, in a March 28, 2011 “Talk of the Town” piece in The New Yorker. “It’s part of the ABC of being a chef.”
And so, when Ripert has to travel to an out-of-town culinary function, he brings along a set of his favorite knives, usually folded “between layers of clothes and pack[ed]…in his suitcase.” Which is decidedly less dramatic than the time he mistakenly tucked the set into his carry-on bag, an oversight that caused quite a stir at the terminal’s security desk, this back in pre-9/11 days.
Ripert’s attachment to his cutlery is further illustrated by the fact that recently he hired Louis Vuitton to create for him a custom knife suitcase. “In life, you appreciate things,” he noted, taking delivery of the finished product. “But it’s important not to get obsessed.”
It’s quite possible, of course, that Ripert had his tongue firmly planted in cheek when he said that, but, if not, the last line is a whopper, ripe with denial.
Which isn’t to say that Ripert—any chef for that matter—shouldn’t be passionate about his or her cutlery. After all, what a glove is to the professional baseball player, a knife is to the professional chef. Tools of the trade and all that. But which tool is best?
When it comes to chef’s knives there are two camps, European (or “Western”) and Japanese. There are two common blade shapes comprising the western style, German and French, the former more deeply and continuously curved along the whole cutting edge, the latter with a straighter edge until the end, which curves up at the tip. As for a Japanese chef’s knife, also known as gyuto or “beef knife,” it has a blade that resembles a flatter version of a French chef's knife and is famous for its sharpness.
In his excellent 2008 profile of Master Bladesmith Bob Kramer, The New Yorker’s Todd Oppenheimer had this to say about pros and cons of each:
“Since any good knife can be made razor sharp, the ultimate question is what happens to it in the minutes, hours, and weeks after its first use, as cooks cut food. Part of the answer lies in the hardness of the steel, which is commonly measured by a family of devices called Rockwell scales. On the retail market, Western knives tend to be the softest, with Rockwell ratings in the middle to upper fifties. This makes a Western knife dull in a relatively forgiving fashion: the microscopic teeth at the knife’s edge bend over. A sharpening steel’s purpose, therefore, is to push back the blade’s teeth so they stand up and cut again. (In this sense, a sharpening steel doesn’t actually sharpen; it just realigns, or “hones,” the edge.) The Rockwell of a traditional Japanese knife, by contrast, runs in the middle sixties—at least near its edge, which is often harder than its more resilient back side. The blade’s profile also tends to be thinner, because Japanese cuisine revolves around relatively yielding foods (primarily fish and soft vegetables). If Japanese knives are restricted to this cuisine, and used carefully, they will remain sharp far longer than Western knives do. When the edge of a Japanese knife dulls, however, its tiny teeth do not bend: their points break off.”
In the end, which way a chef leans is purely personal, a decision based on what he’s grown up using, what he cooks, his hand shape and size and, yes, even the girth of his billfold. However, lest someone become too particular with the quality and style of his knives, Atlanta chef Eli Kirshtein, also featured in the Creative Loafing Atlanta story, offers these wise words:
“As much as we obsess over knives, it's really the magician, not the wand that makes the magic.”