Masa Morimoto once said: “Japanese chefs believe our soul goes into our knives once we start using them. You wouldn’t put your soul in a dishwasher.” (or in the hands of another person…
WOW! So what is the deal with chefs and their knives? Maybe it is a deranged fascination with things that are sharp, or maybe it is professional pride. More than likely it is a respect for the tools of a trade – no different than an artist and their brushes, a photographer and camera, a musician and their instrument, a plumber and their wrench, or a carpenter and their hammer. It is, after all, the tools that allow a craftsperson to accomplish tasks and demonstrate their skill. I tend to think that with chefs it is more like a Hell’s Angel and their Harley (don’t even think of looking at my bike).
There is a very interesting bond between a craftsperson and the tools that they use. I would go so far as to say that you can tell how serious the cook is by how they treat their knives.
Let me point out a few personal stories with my own knives. The first real knife that I purchased was in 1968, a student of hospitality encountering my first knife salesperson. I had to have one! He convinced my to fork over (like the play on words?) what little money I had for a 12 inch, 100% carbon steel Sabatier French knife. It was a beauty. Nothing holds an edge like carbon steel and this one could be used to shave with. It did not always sparkle like stainless steel, but man could it cut. I had that knife for 20 years until it disappeared one day from my knife kit, grrrrrr. By the way, if the person who “borrowed it” is reading this post, I hope that bad karma catches up with you. When my grandfather was still alive (he was a pattern maker) he made a knife for my father who later passed it on to me. Again, carbon steel with a rosewood handle. This 10 inch chefs knife served me well for many additional years, but alas, it also grew legs and walked (a pattern is developing here).
I felt that I really came of age as a cook while working as the lead night cook at the Beef Baron Restaurant, part of the Statler Hilton Hotel in Buffalo. One day when I arrived the Executive Chef assigned me my own knife drawer with a lock. I was important and my tools had a home.
As time went on, I began to hone my knife skills, especially with detail garde manger work. I was pretty good with a paring knife and was able to tourne vegetables with the best of them. One day I was introduced to a bird’s beak knife and my life changed. To this day, no one can match my tourne skills as long as that knife is in my hands.
Another event that demonstrates how I feel about those tools happened while I was working at the Statler Hilton. I was 20 years old and working on a Kosher Wedding (the type where the Rabbi must be present, the ovens burned off to sanitize and all stainless tables covered with starched white linen). During service of a prime rib dinner (had to be hand sliced) my knife became dull so I reached for another trusty 12 inch slicer in my drawer. Just as the blade was to touch the meat, the Rabbi jumped up from his stool, grabbed the knife from my hand and threw it on the floor (it had not been blessed beforehand). That was probably one of the few times in my life when I came close to causing bodily harm to another human being.
Knives have not always been kind to me. I have more stitches in my hands than I care to count (well over 30) from various incidents when my knives turned on me. At one point I was on a first name basis at the emergency room. Now, those cuts serve as battle scars and the source of some interesting stories.
So, how do you choose the “right” knives? To me, there are only two parts to the selection process: how well it maintains and edge and how does it feel in your hand. If at all possible buy knives that have a healthy percentage of carbon steel in them (the blends with stainless look nice and stay sharp), I prefer wood handles, although the health department frowns on them and make sure that the bolster and tang are such that you can minimize blisters on you hand from repetitive motion.
I do have a pet peeve (having been in culinary education for 30 years) with way too young novice cooks owning $300 knives (Henkels or Shun). It would be similar to buying a 17 year old a new Mercedes after they get their learner’s permit to drive. You need to earn the right, through experience to have something that beautiful. Get your sea legs on something in the $50 range until you have cut yourself at least 100 times.
Another pet peeve is when others assume that your knives are public property and can be used for anything and everything (opening cans with the heel, servers using them to cut lemons on a stainless table, or dishwashers using your carbon steel French knife to breakdown cardboard boxes). This is when chefs and cooks might just go postal. Just watch the look of either disbelief or contempt when someone asks a chef if they can borrow their knife, or worse, simply grab it off of their cutting board. Be prepared!!!!!!!
Some people have more knives than they can keep track of. They need every special tool that comes out and can be seen wheeling in their Craftsman 20 drawer chest to their corner of the kitchen. The other extreme was my friend, and talented chef: Jose Faria who owned two knives that worked just fine for him.
Don’t mess with my knives is a message to all who enter the kitchen. These tools are more than just instruments to perform a task, there is an unusual and yes maybe a little creepy, relationship between a chef and a blade – don’t go there.