All the skills in the world can’t make up for a blunted knife. Like a wizard without a wand, a chef without a precise blade might as well relegate themselves to microwave cookery.
But when the market is flooded with different sizes, shapes and styles of knife, how on earth are you supposed to pick the right set? And once you’ve decided on your culinary weapon of choice, how can you keep it in slicing order?
Forged or stamped?
“One of the many choices you will have is whether to opt for a forged or stamped knife, so it’s important to understand the difference,” says Ross Gibson of Pro Foodservice Reps, which is distributing American knife brand Mercer in the UK.
“Stamped knives have their blades cut from large, flattened sheets of steel and the edge ground and polished to produce a lighter weight.”
Forged knives, on the other hand, are produced by pouring heated steel into a mould before subjecting the knife to heating and cooling treatments to build resilience — additionally strengthening and hardening the blade.
“The blade is then ground from the spine to the edge, creating a tapered blade that is balanced at the bolster,” Gibson explains. “Forged knives are strong and heavy with a bolster for safety and balance.”
Jesse Dunford Wood (Parlour, Kensal Green):
"For a simple choice I always urge the younger Chefs to use the wooden handled Vctorinex. Cheap, but have upgraded to Glestan knives, a Japanese knife with a European blade that is sharp both sides, as opposed to the Japanese style of one sharpening side and a flat side."
Aidan McGee (The Truscott Arms, Maida Vale):
"I use a Japanese handmade knife called a Tojiro. At £60 it's a good price, very light and keeps sharp."
Dominic Chapman (The Beehive, White Waltham):
"I love TOG knives - they are truly beautiful, perfectly weighted and a joy to use."
There’s also the matter of where your knives come from. While European chefs’ knives lend themselves well to traditional French and British cooking styles, thanks to their weighty heels, Japanese knives have grown increasingly popular amongst the UK’s chefs over the past few years.
Japanese knives are typically lighter than their European counterparts and can arguably provide greater manoeuvrability for some of the more contemporary cooking and preparation techniques utilised in high-end pub and restaurant kitchens — especially within those kitchens that incorporate Asian styles.
However, it’s important to remember that while the comparative lightness of Japanese knives may make it easier to carry them around all day, they are designed for slicing sideways and diagonally rather than straight down into the chopping board.
High-end European knives typically have a considerably longer life-span than most Japanese knives — it’s not uncommon for chefs to wield the same Wüsthof or similar brand for up to 20 years in some cases.
James Mackenzie, chef-patron of the Michelin-starred Pipe & Glass Inn, in Beverley, East Yorkshire, uses both in his kitchen, although, he says: “The ones I love at the minute are the Japanese ones. I love the feel of them and they do stay sharp”.
Ceramic knives, which have experienced a relative amount of popularity among amateur and home cooks, are yet to make considerable gains in the professional market.
The first cut is the deepest
So what are the main considerations chefs should take into account before purchasing a knife or set of knives?
“What I say to my apprentices who’ve just started cheffing is that there’s no point in getting a full set of 20-odd knives,” says Mackenzie. “You’ll use a core group of knives so start off buying some good ones — not the cheapest ones, but definitely not the most expensive ones.”
Mackenzie himself favours a set of Robert Welch knives, which he uses at home and for cooking demonstrations. In the Pipe & Glass’ kitchen though, he doesn’t stick to only one brand.
“It’s essential to learn how to use knives, see which ones you use the most of and then if you want a nice one, go spend your money on an individual knife,” he says.
“Some guys turn up and they’ve got a full set of £500 knives, but they can’t cook or use them.”
For Mackenzie, it’s important — although not always possible — to try out a knife before you purchase it. Often, he says, once you find one you like, you will stick with that model for a long time.
“Then you have to consider cost, how often you will use it, is it worth it? Like any other piece of kit.”
And when training young chefs and apprentices, it’s fundamental to teach them basic knife skills before they seriously consider purchasing an expensive one, he says.
“You should be able to chop an onion right, learn all the classic cuts and learn them properly,” he says. “It’s quite sad but as a chef there’s something quite gratifying about seeing all the vegetables chopped perfectly — it teaches [young chefs] about wastage.
“It eventually becomes second nature — but it does need to be instilled in them — how to control a knife and the skills of filleting,
chopping meat and explaining to them why you use a particular knife for different jobs.
“Don’t buy a really, really expensive set,” he reiterates. “Get a decent set — not a collection of Tesco £2.99 jobs — but don’t go spending hundreds of pounds to begin with. Just get ones you will be proud of and look after them.”
While keeping your knife sharp is fundamental, it’s also important to consider the way it is washed — dishwashing can cause knives to bang against other cutlery and tableware which can create nicks on the edges of the blades.
“The heat and detergent may also have a negative effect on the handle and cause it to deteriorate and discolour,” Gibson explains. “The change in the temperature of the water may also cause the steel to become brittle.”
In light of this, Gibson recommends chefs always wash their own knives by hand, making sure they’re stored post-wash where they won’t come into contact with other knives, tough objects or errant team members’ hands.