Finding the Right Knife: An Epic Quest
When I worked as a decorative artist, I was on the constant search for new and better tools. Brushes were an extension of my hand, translating whatever talent I possessed onto wall, ceiling, floor or furniture. Sable, squirrel, horsehair – every brush had its signature. I even had brushes made from the stomach hair of a female Chinese badger.
With that said, it is no surprise that my search for the perfect kitchen knives became an elaborate endeavor. What should have been a reasonable Internet browse and a trip to my local kitchen supply store turned into a quest. It wasn’t manic or hurried; more of a wandering curiosity. I had serviceable knives at home. There was no rush.
A methodical shopper, I rarely buy something the first time I see it. As a designer, I have the good fortune to see many beautiful things created by many talented people. If I purchased everything that moved me, I would need a warehouse. The things that I continue to think about long after my first encounter are the things that I purchase.
My search took me through catalogues, websites, national chains, single-owner shops, artisan fairs and to two of the biggest showcases anywhere, the International Home + Housewares and the National Restaurant Association Shows. Both shows feature knives from every major manufacturer in the world. Many of these knives are prototypes or styles that often never make it to store shelves or cooking websites. What better place to find that perfect and unique knife?
We believe that a matching knife set is the ideal cutlery purchase. They fill the walls and shelves of every kitchen store across the country. I even purchased German knife sets for each of my sisters for Christmas. Retailers entice by advertising the savings of buying a set over purchasing the same knives separately. Matching steak knives and a handsome wooden display block are usually part of the mix. I found myself considering knives not just for their quality and function, but also for how they were going to look on my kitchen counter.
Yet what you often end up with are knives that you will rarely use in a single style of blade that may not be suited for all the cooking tasks you will encounter. Pretty in the kitchen isn’t always pretty in hand.
Before purchasing a knife you must analyze how and what you cook. Are you a casual cook with only basic needs or a home cooking enthusiast, like me, with a DVR full of cooking shows, shelves full of cookbooks and an imagination waiting for the next inspiration or challenge?
Every knife around the world had its origins in the cuisine from which it originated. Over time, professional and amateur chefs have refined their needs, causing manufacturers to create a magnificent array of cutlery both beautiful and functional.
One of the first things I did was to ‘86’ the kitchen counter block. It took the pressure off finding the perfect matching set and allowed me to focus on individual knives. I purchased a flat wooden knife holder designed to fit in a kitchen drawer. The empty slots were waiting to be filled.
Truthfully, you don’t need a whole set of knives. An eight-or-ten-inch chef’s knife, a three-or-four-inch paring knife, a quality serrated/bread knife, quality kitchen shears and a honing steel will handle most kitchen tasks. The honing steel doesn’t sharpen but realigns the microscopic teeth of blade edge. It is for maintenance between professional sharpening. If you are an avid cook, I would suggest adding a quality boning knife and a santouku if you cut a lot of vegetables. The indentions in the santouku blade help prevent food from sticking to the knife when slicing.
Some knives are referred to as ‘full tang.’ This is where the blade extends the entire length of the knife fully through the handle. This is often featured in knives with a riveted handle where the length of the knife blade is fully visible through the handle. Unlike many knives whose blades have a short end bonded into the handle, full tangs knives are believed to be more durable.
As gourmet cooking and specialty shops became more prevalent, American and German knives were among the first featured. With heavier blades, often made of forged or carbon steal, they are ideal for most kitchen tasks including cutting up whole poultry and other, heavier kitchen chores. Carbon steel is known for its sharpness, yet it can discolor with acidic ingredients like lemons and will rust if not kept dry between uses. Stainless steel is easier to maintain but does not always hold its edge as well. Wustof and Henckel are famous brands in this category.
With the wave of popularity of Sushi, Japanese knives became all the rage. The benchmark is the Damascus style knife with a blade design originating with the swords of Samurai soldiers. These knives are made of different formulations of steel that are layered, pounded and folded in an elaborate forging process that produces the signature wave pattern on the side of the blade. These thinner, sharper, more flexible knives are ideal for the complicated cutting techniques required in Asian cooking. They are beautiful but quite expensive. Their thinner, more brittle blades are prone to nicking if not stored and used properly. Japanese knives are meant for slicing and would not be used for cutting through bones that would damage the blade (Cleavers are meant for such tasks). Global and Shun are well-known brands.
The shape of the handle is key for comfort and safety. The material should be durable and slip-resistant. The knife should be an extension of the hand. Its grip should be secure and prevent pivoting in your hand when cutting.
German and many American knives are definitely heavier than most Asian knives. The different weights between knife styles may not be as apparent to the home chef. Yet for professional chefs, faced with preparing large quantities of food, the differences matter. Comfort, durability and a sharp edge over time are key issues. Yet knives can be too thin or too light-weight, forcing the cook to add pressure when slicing. A properly sharpened knife should glide through food with its weight and balance doing most of the work.
At the International Home + Housewares Show in Chicago, I had the privilege to meet world-renowned knife designer, Ken Onion. Known for his beautiful and innovative designs, Ken has designed knife series for top manufacturers, including Shun.
Commissioned by Chef Works, Ken was at the show demonstrating is new knife series, Rain.
I had the opportunity of speaking with him and he took the time to explain his design, and the reasons behind the construction and artistic choices. During this conversation and my subsequent exploration of the series, I formed a connection with these pieces that I was missing when looking at other knives.
I chose these knives based on my own needs as a cook, but also based on the creative intentions of their designer.
Winner of Blade Magazine’s Kitchen Knife of the Year Award 2013, these knives are the perfect pairing of form and function.
Learning the inspiration for and origins of Ken’s work has added depth to my cooking experience. I feel genuine pride when using my knives. I believe that I am adding to their history every time I cook a meal. The experience brings forth fond memories of meals with family and friends. I even take them with me when visiting family for holidays and reunions. I saved the packing boxes so I can travel safely with the blades protected. They have become a part of my experience, as much as the meals I prepare. I will admit the process of seeking and then selecting my knives was a lengthy one – truly a quest. But having found the perfect knives to help me to do whatever I can imagine in the kitchen means that my adventure is really just beginning.