Ken's knife brigade

Ken’s knife brigade





There’s a deep sense of satisfaction in using a well designed, perfect tool. A backyard gardener has a sharp, sturdy trowel with a sharp blade and a comfortable wooden handle. The carpenter’s leather tool belt has the hammer that just about lives in his hand. For a cook, the most important tool is the knife. With the right knife, prep work is clean and satisfying. The results are uniform and lovely. The wrong knife causes frustration and stress.

If you have an assortment of unsatisfying knives, you may want to start the new year with plans to upgrade to the tools you deserve. If you are overwhelmed whenever you see an ad for a set of high-end knives, you might be wondering where to start, and worried about how much you’ll need to spend. Good news!  Even if you are a serious cook, you can get by with just three knives and a honing steel. And you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars. Check out almost any recipe in a magazine or cookbook, and tell me that you can’t prepare it with just these three knives.

Start with these four pieces, which should cost you about $130.00.
You need:

  • a 7 1/2-inch wavy-edge French knife. This Victorinox beauty–which happens to be top-rated by Cook’s Magazine–will be ideal for everything from prepping delicate fruits and firm crunchy vegetables to carving roasted or grilled meats. It also can take the place of a “bread knife”.
  • an 8-inch standard French knife. Use this one for anything the above knife can’t do: finely mincing fresh herbs, such as parsley, cilantro or garlic, and breaking down whole chickens, where bone and gristle require a sturdier blade.
  • a 3- to 4-inch paring/utility knife. This blade is for peeling and shaping potatoes or veggies, cutting lemon and lime wedges and slicing strawberries, or butterflying boneless chicken breasts, and any other task that requires a small, delicate knife.
  • a honing steel about 10 inches in length. This is an important tool that maintains a sharp edge on a knife. It’s not difficult to learn how to use, and it makes all the difference. Watch this video and you’ll see. 

Since 1976—some 40 years ago and counting—I have had one favorite knife. I was working at the Michelin-starred Waldhotel Krautkramer outside of Muenster, West Germany, where most of the department chefs (chefs de partie) had trained in Switzerland. To a man, they all swore by Forschner Victorinox blades. On day one, sous chef Herr Hansen handed me a 7 ½-inch French knife with a wavy edge and a warning: “Sehr scharf – Passen sie auf!” (Very sharp – watch out!) Since that day I have gone through probably a dozen of these myself, and given dozens more away as gifts.

This knife is light-weight, a stamped blade (cookie-cutter-cut from a continuous sheet of the finest stainless steel). The rosewood or fibrox (plastic) handle fits snugly in the hand. It literally glides through anything in its path—even the skin of, say, a butternut squash—like a perfect extension of one’s hand. Just point and cut.

The wavy edge is sometimes inaccurately marketed as a serrated edge, and that can be misleading. A true serrated edge is purposely a bit jagged, designed to cut through crusty bread or frozen food (think of a chain saw and its sawdust byproduct). A wavy edge is subtle and works its way through food delicately and precisely. Nothing beats it for carving grilled meat. If you are careful and use a wavy edge Victorinx on a cutting board, all you need is the occasional swipe with a honing steel and this knife will last for years!

What this model cannot do well is finely mince things like fresh herbs or garlic, or cut through joints of, say, a chicken; these tasks are better performed with a straight-edge French knife or boning knife. Some cooks (Pat included) prefer a forged French knife with a conventional straight edge. It is heavier, costlier to manufacture, and more substantial in the hand. To my mind, however, it holds an edge no better than a stamped knife, and it won’t last any longer. What the forged knife does have is a much higher price tag. A 7 1/2″ rosewood handle Victorinox model #40027 nowadays costs about $47.00. A forged Wustof 8” model #4584-7/20 (I have one and it is stunning to behold) comes in at around $160.00. It is an excellent tool, and one that will also give your kitchen a classier look.

Post-holiday sale prices on both stamped and forged knives can be significant. Before investing in three or more new knives, however, consider buying just one, or one of each type. Check out the feel and performance that suits you best. I also advise against being lured into buying sets of knives that sound like a bargain; more often than not, you end up with pieces you’ll never use. As with pots and pans, you’re better off buying a la carte.