The Truth about Buying a Knife

“An expensive knife may inflate your ego while depleting your pocket, it’s a beautiful showpiece. A cheaper knife has to prove its worth, just like the hand wielding it.” Jomo Morris

Over time I’ve accumulated an extensive collection of knives. Some I use on a daily basis, while others wait for a special occasion – a heavy meat cleaver for chopping goat meat or a serrated knife for cutting bread into croutons. I’ve always equated brand name knives with quality and durability. Having a toolbox filled with expensive knives distinguished an industry professional from the home cook, who would wince at spending $120 on a Shun French knife. Expensive European brands like the heavy German Wusthofs and Henckel were a common site in professional kitchens and retail stores like Williams Sonoma, until chefs began to fall in love with super sharp, wafer thin, Japanese steel, like Global, Shun and Mac knives. I paid eighty for a 12” Wusthof and fifty for my 8” Mac French knife. Wusthofs are very thick German blades that require constant maintenance; I had to buy a whetstone just to sharpen it and a steel to help maintain the edge. I also own a Wustoff super slicer which is a cross between a serrated edge and  French knife, it comes in pretty handy for cutting bulky root vegetables and general all purpose work. As for my Mac knife, it was a favored child, until it fell and the tip broke.

Curious, I decided to put my theory to the test and look at the collection of fellow line cooks. What I found, was an assortment of knives, some new, some old, expensive forged knives, nestled beside stamped blades with solid plastic handles. Their toolboxes represented a global melting pot of Asian, American and European cutlery; each knife became a point of reference as they progressed from kitchen to kitchen. My belief was in fact a misnomer. In fact, the opposite was true. Companies produce expensive knives and market them primarily to amateur cooks. Yes, chefs perpetuate the myth of added prowess from the use of brand name products, but ultimately, it’s the general public that shell out the big bucks to buy them. Owning a fancy knife at home is like a status symbol, signaling to other foodies, the seriousness of your intentions and commitment.  Professionals prefer their tools to be dependable, reliable and most importantly affordable. These are tools we work with everyday and durability is more important than aesthetic appeal.

Experienced cooks learn to value their knives by the sharpness of the blade. The best knives retain their keen edge, despite repetitive acts of shredding, dicing, peeling and chopping. A sharp knife increases speed and efficiency as copious amounts of raw produce is transformed into silky smooth whipped potatoes, tomato concasse, French onion soup and steak tartare in time for service. A well honed, twelve inch French knife is the line cooks’ workhorse, though I’ve worked with a chef, whose favorite knife was a scimitar. I’ve watched him skillfully fillet whole salmon, portion dry-aged ribeye and fill a nine pan with perfectly julienned chives – in a blur of motion, elbows close to his side as he rocked the blade back and forth on the cutting board.

Recently, I bought a knife from a fellow line cook; He had twelve of them stashed in his locker and I happened to pass by, as he was changing into his uniform. I wanted one, because I’m familiar with the kiwi brand, they are wickedly sharp, lightweight and cheap. Everyone in the kitchen bought one.  I know I’ll never see this brand in Williams Sonoma or at the Cook’s Warehouse but who cares. It’s perfect for a fine brunoise of red onions or thinly slicing a bundle of chives. I use it to slice tuna for plating, scoring foie gras, as well as general prep work.

                My knives are like old friends – my meat cleaver and super slicer are over ten years old. They’ve traveled with me to Jamaica; they’ve waited patiently while I tried to forget about cooking and becoming a chef and set my mind to other things like working in the family business. They lay for years nestled snuggly in my knife roll while I tried to forget about what I loved most. A good knife will always be there even if it lies at the bottom of a pile. I treasure my collection of knives – my boning, paring, utility, French, serrated edge, santouku. I’ve paid the ultimate price in blood and sweat to use them and now they are truly mine.