Worlds Greatest Knives For The Best Chefs
Integrity, provenance, authenticity and sustainability are increasingly, and unexpectedly, terms we are applying to the food we eat and the way it is sourced. For the generations which preceded ours, eating out was a privilege and an event. For us and the generations which follow it is moving towards becoming something between an expectation and a right. And the breadth and quality of food we eat at home has evolved too. With the luxury of exposure to global cuisine when we dine away from home, and the ability to recreate it with a mere glance towards the world wide web (and a stroll down the world foods aisle) when we return there, our tastes have permission to grow more esoteric and our expectations ever higher.
Where restaurants lead, so the home cook follows. But just as we recognise that a workman is only as good as his tools, so too do we know only too well that the artistry of a chef demands a knife commensurate with his skill. First and foremost a chef’s knife must be made of a material of appropriate quality and durability for the demands placed upon it. Any home chef worth his salt would shun anything but a knife made from steel (or very occasionally ceramic). And when we speak of steel there are only two countries of origin for the discerning chef to source his blades from…
Japanese Chefs Knives
It will come as no surprise to learn that the first is Japan. We have long associated the Japanese with martial artistry and culturally the samurai sword has been elevated to iconic status. Japanese chef’s knives share many of the same facets as their deadly cousins: they are lightweight, precise and breathtakingly sharp. The steel used to craft Japanese knives has a high carbon content, which makes for a harder blade and allows extraordinary precision in the bevels or angles of the cutting blade. They retain their sharpness well and allow showy chef’s to demonstrate the full range of their cutting prowess but must be carefully maintained lest that solid steel should rust.
European Chef Knives
European knives, by contrast (French and German knives to be specific, ideally from the cities of Thiers and Solingen, while we are on the subject of discernment), while rewarded with equal professional recognition, are far less demanding to maintain. Their softer steel is more forgiving, lending them to multiple purposes and somewhat insuring the home cook against accidental neglect.Their weight and heft aid the chef who wields them and they can be used to prepare multiple proteins and ingredients, as opposed to the specificity of their Japanese counterparts. At the risk of generalisation, French and German knives can also tend toward the workmanlike in aesthetic. Whereas Japanese knifes – as befits their lineage – have personality and (at the high end of price tagging) border on works of art in their own right.
The question of best almost always produces a subjective answer. Beyond the advice of professionals, budgetary constraints and good common sense we are each irrevocably swayed by personal preference, instinct and taste. Nevertheless, there are a few core rules the aspiring home chef can follow to equip himself with the best knives for his or her purpose. For those who prefer to use a single knife for multiple purposes or prefer not to task themselves with too much upkeep, German steel is the way forward. For collectors, cooks with a preference for the dexterity and joy of a knife with lighter heft, Japanese blades ought to be your go to tool. This is particularly the case for those who prepare a lot of fish. The more delicate and specific bevel of Japanese knives being gentler and less intrusive on raw ingredients.
If Japanese steel is your speed, and your budget is generous, the must have chef’s knife for your arsenal is undoubtedly the Shun Premier 8” Chef’s Knife. Its jaw-droppingly beautiful hammered tsuchime surface and comfortable wooden grip combine style with comfort of operation. While the perceptibly thinner blade – a calling card of Japanese kitchen knives and swords – allows a deftness of touch and incomparable precision without tiring the hand.
Indisputably among the greatest knives in the world is the Wusthof Classic 8” Chef’s Knife. Wusthof are a brand much beloved among Western chefs for their quality and ease of use. Weighty enough to handle both protein and vegetables, it balances reassuringly in the hand. It’s appearance is classic with a triple-riveted handle and full tang blade. Treated correctly and maintained well, purchasing this knife will be an investment which pays dividends in your kitchen.
Returning to Japanese knives, our second contender from Shun is the Shun Classic Chef’s Knife. Though a little less flamboyant than the Shun Premiere, this is nevertheless a breathtaking knife. The stainless steel has a high carbon content to allow maximum sharpness of cutting blade to be achieved with Damascus layers adding to the high prestige finish. Again the blade is extraordinarily fine and makes light work of multiple ingredients. Though caution should be used in the care of this masterpiece because the delicate tip may break through mishandling.
For good compromise knife – in terms of the melding of Eastern and Western characteristics but by no mean a compromise of quality – chefs turn to the Messermeister Meridian Elite Professional Chef’s Knife. The heft of the Messermeister Meridian Elite will be reassuringly familiar to fans of German chef’s knives, while the thin blade and delicacy of cut recall the finest of Japanese steel. This is a well balanced knife which sits well in the hand allowing elaborate cuts without tiring the hand.
A valuable transition knife for chef’s moving between European and Japanese techniques is the Global Chef’s Knife. The Global range comes with the reassurance of a lifetime guarantee for those a little more cagey about the fragility of Japanese cutlery and its sharpness is comparable with that of the Shun. Its cutting edge retains its sharpness well and its dimpled handled gives a reassuringly safe and comfortable grip.This is a distinctive knife any chef can be proud to carry.
The Wusthof Epicure Chef’s Knife is another that may be described as a transitional knife. This time for those transitioning from good solid home cooking to recipes demanding a higher standard of knife skills. This is a German made knife so, as you would expect, it is well suited for more demanding knife work. It is a well weighted and solid knife which makes quick work of proteins, bones and chunky veg. It is a more forgiving knife for a novice chef because it will take a battering without incurring damage. But you may find that your hand tires faster from this knife’s heft.
By contrast, the Mac Professional Hollow Edge 8” Chef’s Knife is ideal for strenuous or long sessions of knife work. It features a Pakkawood handle which is very forgiving to a tired hand and dimples in the blade so ingredients slide free as they are sliced. The thin and hollow blade cuts like a dream through even the toughest ingredients as this knife has been designed and made to be as accurate as it is reliable. These beauties are beloved of professional kitchens for good reason!
On the subject of dreams, and for many of us the ownership of a bespoke knife will only ever be a distant dream, we come to the Bloodroot Chef’s Knife (from Georgia, somewhat surprisingly). If you’re going to push the boat out you may as well do it with a bit of panache…and panache is something Bloodroot have in their blood. Their artisan chef’s knives come with an unconditional lifetime warranty, promising free maintenance for your precious new blade. Available in either Gyuto or Western design with responsibly sourced materials and highly personalised finishes to both blade and handle, there is literally something here to suit every chef blessed with the purse to place an order.
Your Personal Preference
Whichever knife you are best suited to, whichever of these contenders you will one day be fortunate enough to own, whichever rather ordinary knife from a mohawk in a block you must settle for for now, there is no denying that a chef’s knife is the most important tool for the majority of food prep. It will be your go-to tool time and again and for that reason the way you care for your knives can be as important as (if not more important than) the knife you buy. Take the time to hand wash and carefully dry your knife after every use. Pay attention to the cutting blade (especially in the case of Western chef’s knives), having them professionally sharpened at regular intervals or learning the art for yourself and store them safely. If you follow these steps they will always serve you well.