one blade shy of a sharp edge (a knife story, part 2)

File this under:  Things I Didn’t Know About Being a Cook/Chef.  (It’s a long and growing list, trust me.) 
On the first season, first episode of Top Chef, I was oddly shocked to find out that chefs wander around with a satchel full of brutally sharp steel slung over their shoulder.  “Please pack your knives and go” clearly made sense in that context, and gave Padma a reason for being on the TV.  Of course you want your own knives.  Does Tiger Woods rent golf clubs?  Does Springsteen borrow a guitar backstage?  Well now, let’s not be silly. 
When you sign up for culinary school, they give you a big list of things you need before you set foot in that professional kitchen–the right shoes, the right clothes, the right equipment.  Which, of course,  means knives.  Some schools put together a prefab kit–convenient, one-stop shopping, but what feels right in my hand might not work for you, and vice versa, though it would have saved me a lot of head-scratching and web surfing in those first few days.  Others present The List and let you do your own shopping.  I will say, The List they handed me at SSCC is unnecessarily obtuse, and would be well-served by some weblinks or even a damn photo or two, but here for your amusement (and because a few of you asked) is the list of what I need on Day One:
  1. 8 and/or 10 inch Chef Knife, forged product is recommended
  2. 3 inch vegetable/ paring knife
  3. vegetable peeler – knee action swivel
  4. serrated butter spreader
  5. 12 inch sharpening steel
  6. square end flexible griddle spatula
  7. 2 inch and/or 3 inch hook nose/parrot beak vegetable knife
  8. instant reading thermometer
  9. 2×2 metal spatula
  10. 7/8 round bowl vegetable corer/parisienne cutter
  11. 12 inch granton edge meat slicer
  12. 10 inch serrated bread knife, rounded end only
  13. 5 inch metal bench scraper with plastic hand grip
  14. kitchen shears, long blade, 3 inch minimum
  15. 6 inch stiff, straight blade boning knife
  16. 10 inch scimitar knife
  17. 9 inch narrow, flexible fish fillet knife
  18. stainless steel fish bone puller
  19. straight tine saute fork
  20. tomato shark
  21. small pastry brush
  22. professional tool bag or case


My first thought:  Holy crap, that’s a lot of knives. 

Second thought:  Hey, I get to buy something called a tomato shark! 

Third thought:  What the hell is a tomato shark? 

I started poking around online and was instantly and completely overwhelmed.  Where to even start? (Amazon?  Sur la Table?  Bob’s Knife and Ammo?)  How much should this stuff cost?  What is a full tang? (And have I been living all this time with only half a tang?)  Is it worth it to spend more money for good stuff up front, or am I going to look like The Tool with The Tools on the first day of classes?

The List threw around a handful of names–Forschner, Henckels, Messermeister, Dexter/Russell, Victorinox, Wusthof–all of which sounded less like cutlery companies and more like generals in the Deutches Heer.  (That’s the Germany Army, for those of you without wikipedia.)  So I called on my culinary secret weapon.

cappy This is Cappy, aforementioned resource on all things culinaire.  Cappy and his fabulous wife, Kristie (no slouch in the kitchen herself, mind you), live on the East Coast, which is where we lived prior to Seattle–and which, no matter way you slice it, is too damn far away to live from fun people you adore.  Cappy is a multi-talented guy who now makes his living running a company, doing software development and social media consulting, and writing books about Facebook. (No seriously, he and his business partner John just finished a book about Facebook.  All you software cats out there, run right out and buy a copy.  I’ll wait.)
In Cappy’s pre-software superhero life, he worked as a professional chef, including running his own kitchen at a restaurant in Gloucester, MA, and doing time at Olives in Boston, under celebuchef and restaurant mogul Todd English.  If anyone would tell me what I needed to know about knives in no uncertain terms, it was Cappy. (I once asked him for some advice about brining poultry, and I got a veritable chapter from the funniest, most useful cookbook yet to be written.)  I shot off an email plea for some culinary brain-picking and gentle guidance down the path of my full-forged future. 
And this is what came back:


Well, there’s 2 schools of thought here. One is what “gets the job done” and the other is “what gets the job done and makes you look cool.”

You know, the Prius vs. Ferrari thing.

Personally I freaking LOVE Victorinox knives. Dirt cheap (really don’t know how they do it) and nearly indestructable. Can even go in dishwasher. (GASP!) Hold a great edge. And at < 30 bucks for a chef’s knife, you can’t beat it. They always score tops in comparison tests. I use their 8″ chef and bread/slicer every day and I own probably 8 chef knives alone, including both henckels and wusthof. I always reach for my Vic.

But they are not pretty. Plastic handles – albeit rough ones so they never slip out of your hand. But oh so comfy. Only knife I ever use without looking at what I’m doing and have never cut myself with one…

Wusthof and Henckels are other big names. Knives are pretty and built like tanks ( their good ones– they make cheap-ass lower priced crap that’s not worth the metal they’re stamped out of).  Get forged full-tang blades if you get these. Full-tang means metal goes all the way through handle. You’ll see the metal on the handle where the blade is bolted to it in some of their cheaper (but not cheap) knives.

These guys have extremely hard blades; however, they are a BITCH to sharpen but keep their edges *extremely* well if you take care of them. Forged blades instead of stamped is reason why. They tend to have some “weight” to them so can take some burden off chopping. Chop 50# of onions (you will) and you’ll see what I mean.

My other favorite is a $9 cleaver made for vegetables I bought at Uwajimaya in Seattle. RAZOR-sharp but needs often sharpening but is easy as hell to sharpen. For over 3 years it was the ONLY knife I used. Seriously.

Bottom line. If you are the type that really takes care of things, like cleaning your knives meticulously after service, rarely lending them to coworkers (who WILL steal them and never treat them as good as you do…), and sharpening them regularly (I used to make mine razor razor sharp every day), go with a henckels or wusthof or other premium brand.

I am not one of these people — and usually ended up using the knives the restaurant had since we rotated them in and out regularly via a sharpening service. And 98% of time you use a chef’s knife. Unless you are paring vegetables — and VERY VERY few use a knife instead of a peeler; real kitchens get shit done as fast as possible– or butchering you rarely use anything else. So if you’re gonna spend, spend on it and screw the rest of them. For other knives, 90+% of chefs I worked with bought these cheap henckels three-packs of paring, tourne, and sheeps’  foot knives and tossed them when they broke, including me.  And I’ve never used a better serrated slicer than the cheap victorinox one.

Whichever you choose, try them out first. I think Williams Sonoma lets you. I once spent $175.00 on a top-of- line Henckels super-premium blade that ended up not really fitting my hand. But since it was cool and expensive, I used it. Cost me the worst tendinitis of my life (DeQuervain’s wrist it’s called) and 8 (!) weeks of lost work. Make damn sure you use before buying!

If it were me, I’d go Vic all the way. That way you don’t spend a ton up front and can try all your classmates’ out to find what you like.  But you’ll definitely be the uncool kid. Cschool is notorious for people with fancy knives and not an ounce of culinary skill. You’re not one of them. =)

Oh forgot about Japanese knives. Fucking beautiful ( some cost well over 1k – per blade…) and fucking amazing. If I had the cake I’d go all in for them. But I’d never want them in a commercial kitchen. They’d be stolen in a week!

On that note: watch out for theft. Knife bags are a prime target. Every restaurant I’ve worked in I’ve lost at least one or two knives to theft. And at least one entire, full knife bag. That usually is what drives chefs to say, fuck it, and use the restaurant knives.

…which,btw, are invariably Vics. =)

 If I were going to school I would probably go with either Henckels, Global, Shun, or Wusthofs if that’s what you can get reasonably. They are great knives and built well. Anyway, your teachers will probably be bitches to the people with the cheap shit, maybe not, dunno. Just would never take the pretties to my journeyman or co-op assignments (where they send you as part of your training – avoid the ‘real’ restaurants – usually a factory like Ivar’s or something where you’ll peel fucking mountains of onions and potatoes…) They will just get stolen. Some prep cook will say, ‘hey dude, can I borrow your slicer? I can’t find mine…’ and then you get busy and at the end of the shift, same guy says, ‘duuude, I put it back in your bag! Seriously!’

Um, yeah.

Go with whatever kicks ass for you. Thought of you tonight, made Mahi-mahi with chourico, pilaf, kale-beet greens-chard from farm down street, and fried garlic. What did I use? Only my Vic. =) See? But would probably use something nicer if guests were over, or if I were going to school.

That 10″ Henckels probably rocks. Try it out. Sharpen it (or better yet, get it sharpened at a real place like most chefs do, even if they say they don’t) and cut a bunch of different things with it: onions, because they are the canonical hybrid task (slicing, paring, chopping all in one), tomatoes, b/c the skin sucks to cut through, peppers, for same reason, and meat of some kind. If it works, you’re done with the chef knife.

Straight-tine saute fork? Seriously?

This is one of those times where thinkers and doers meet. You know, the thinkers say ‘everyone should treat their kids/biz/finances THIS WAY and we’d all retire at 12 and there’d be no war and we’d all make love all day long…’ and the doers say, ‘fucker, [1] you don’t have kids, [2] you work for a non-profit and have never worked a hard day in your life, and [3] w/o your trust fund you’re fucking POOR, so STFU!’


That fork is this stupidity which you’ll only use if you carve the overcooked piss-poor hunk of death called ‘Steamship Round’ at the local Marriott out by the airport.  The only ppl you EVER see using it don’t speak English and wear those gay-ass paper hats in inverse proportion to their penis sizes. Just sayin’. You use it to turn shit over when sauteeing. Which everyone with more than 6 brain cells does in a real kitchen with spring-loaded stainless tongs or their bare fucking hands (insert cave man grunting noises and angry screaming lesbians…).

But I digress.

 As for steels, there’s two (maybe more) schools of thought. The diamond flat-blade steel or the round one. I have both. I like the flat one. Seems to work better for me b/c it feels like it ‘sticks’ to the blade better. But I use both – whichever is closer – every time I use a knife or put it away. Yep, *both* times. When I use it to start cutting and when I put it away.

For the odd knives – the granton slicer, scimitar, birds beak, get cheaper ones if you can. YOU WILL NEVER USE THEM in the real world, most likely. You will do the following:

– use slicer for gravlax, big-ass roasts, braciole, roulades, etc. Slicer makes great presentation b/c it cuts in ONE motion – no sawing involved – so it makes perfectly flat cuts. Very important for pretty.

– scimitar: for hacking up big carcasses of flesh. I cut the pinky of my left hand off 2/3 of the way to the wrist–all the way through the hand on both sides– with one while trying to break down a beef primal to get at the ribeye during a busy service one night when a bunch of cruise ship dudes from Chicago came to Gloucester and wiped out my prepped beef by 6PM on a summer Saturday eve. Raced to hospital, sewed it back on, back on line in 2 hours to finish service. Scotch dulled the pain. Good scotch. Wait, why the fuck was I a chef again? =) Anyway, get a Dexter Russel or some workhorse knife here. You will most likely never be the one in the restaurant to use it unless the chef (or if you are the chef, you…) trusts you to break down their most expensive proteins like whole beef primals, swordfish, big slabs of tuna, etc. I’ve never owned one, even though one owned me. There is usually one in an entire place and is wielded by the guy (usually who speaks no English or Spanish) who’s done the proteins every day for the last 20+ years. FUN knife to have though!

– birds beak – sent you the link to the 12 dollar 3-pack of paring knives. Buy. that. You are going to be subjected to cutting the damn 7-sided tourne cut (those annoying potato or carrot football things.) This is the only thing you will ever use that knife for unless they also have you make fluted mushroom caps which I have never seen in the wild. We made them one night at Olives after doing piles of “totally legal and safe for all ages” substances that made us want to COMPETE RIGHT NOW LET’S GO RIGHT NNNNOOOOW, Gordon Ramsey-style competition-like. Only time in my career. Don’t remember who won… I guess if you do corporate buffets or something you might need to make fluted mushrooms. But I know you, and you’d sooner carve your own eye out with that knife than make fluted mushroom caps.

– bread knife – Vic has kicked the ass of every other bread knife I’ve owned or used. We use it every day. But, it has the Fibrox black handle and looks cheap, even though it skoolz all the cool kids. Go with whatevs you like. Just buy the Vic for your house.

– boning knife – I like my Wusthof Culinar but it cost a mint. It’s awesome to flourish at guests since it looks like one solid piece of steel and makes this cool singing noise when you whack it against the board. But, I always used Dexter Russels. Why? Because the #1 use of filet/boning knives is for cleaning fish, well, at least here. And gutting fish is *nasty.* And Gloucester is capital of it. And the old Portuguese women that gut cod all day, every day, use them. So I did, too. Ganky? you bet. But it will filet 1,000 lbs of fish in no time. And you can throw its stinky ass in the dishwasher and not worry about it. Remember, too: you’ll be filleting before your guests arrive. But for school prolly go high-end.

I typed that entire message using one finger on my iphone. I think you win for longest single text entry on iphone for cappy… Anyway, hope that helped.


And that, my friends, is what should have been on The List.  And heartfelt thanks to Cappy for such great (and damn funny) advice.  Knives are ordered and on their way!  Mostly Vics, the rest Henckels. 

T-minus twelve days and counting.


4 responses to “one blade shy of a sharp edge (a knife story, part 2)

  1. Rebecca Rickabaugh

    this is outstanding information – even at this late date. and definitely damn funny.
    one finger . . . ?

  2. I want to go buy knives now. But after all this, I still don’t know what a tomato shark is. Did you get one? what is it? and what the hell is “knee action swivel”?

    • Hey Liz! Here is a tomato shark.

      And I had to ask Cappy about the “knee-action swivel” too. Apparently it’s just your basic swivel-head peeler–the same one your grandmother probably used. But why be simple when you can confuse all of your incoming students? 🙂

  3. Now I want one, of course. I don’t know how I lived this long without a tomato shark. Yeah, that second sentence is sarcasm, but not the first. I really do want one!

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