Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Not-So-Complete Guide To Buying A Chef's Knife Pt. 2

I think I am in love.

While I never intended my previous article to be the knife-equivalent of the Library of Alexandria, there have been more than a few very interesting notions and suggestions that have floated on the breeze in my direction. That said, most of the larger points remain valid: Buying a nice knife is confusing; Most big-brand Western knives are no where near as good as their similarly priced Japanese knives. However, there are many nuances which I didn't know enough to communicate. So let me take you through a few things I learned, as well as show you some cool pictures of the knife I ended up buying. (Spoiler: it is a 240mm Gesshin Uraku wa-gyuto. If you're curious, a wa-gyuto is the same blade as a gyuto, but it has a Japanese style handle.)

First, if you are ever in LA, I highly recommend dropping by a wonderful store that came to my attention via Twitter: Japanese Knife Imports is a specialty knife shop that works in close concert with craftsmen in Japan to bring over and maintain wonderful Japanese knives of all kinds. If you get a chance, chatting with Jonathan there is an enlightening expirience. He has an amazing ability to explain complex ideas about knives in an easy to understand and direct way. He was kind enough to let me come by the shop, drink some tea and hang out a couple of times, which lead to a whole slew of new information about knives.

One tidbit Jonathan mentioned explained a much broader (and highly relevant to someone buying their first nice knife) cultural difference: I had asked why reviews of otherwise fantastic Japanese knives often bemoan that the edges weren't sharp from the factory. Jonathan explained that Japanese knives are shipped from their producer with the expectation that the person buying any given grade of knife will have knife sharpening and use skills equal-to-or-better-than the quality of knife they are getting. In real terms, that means that even lower-mid-level Japanese gyutos are shipped with only a partial finished edge. The craftsmen who make the knives assume that the buyer will put their preferred edge on the knife once it arrives. 

This is a correct assumption when you are selling to Japanese restaurant staff members since learning to sharpen knives is one of the base skills you learn as an apprentice cook. But in America, this isn't true. As a novice knife buyer, what this means to you is that the more sophisticated knives are also trickier to sharpen to their full potential. That 64 hardness super-blue-steel-BS-blah-blah-blah that looks so cool? Well, it's going to require more skill to setup and maintain. What this means for my guide is that I would actually steer those of you who are novices (like myself) to the less esoteric, less brittle knives. 

The other major point which Jonathan mentioned was that you actually shouldn't use a honing rod or a steel on your knife. There's some geometry involved, but the basic reason is that it applies far too much repeated pressure back and forth on the edge of the blade which deeply fatigues the knife. With repeated use of a steel over its life, the knife won't be able to hold an edge for as long. Especially as a home cook and with how long most of these Japanese blades will hold an amazing edge, it's easier to avoid honing and just to sharpen them occasionally. I was wrong in my first article to recommend using a honing rod — live and learn, and besides, it's one less thing to buy.

Having spent some time watching knives get sharpened, repaired and modified, I learned that sharpening is a way less traumatically technical skill than I could have imagined. Frankly, it's shocking to learn how organic and malleable knives are — how easy mistakes are to fix — and how simple the process of sharpening with a whetstone actually is. (Simple, but not easy.) After a quick lesson, buying a $30 stone (a Super King 1000), a giant Sharpie and a few attempts on my crappy home knives I could put a really decent edge on them. 

If you are getting a nice Japanese knife, I can't recommend enough to spend the small amount of money and the small handful of hours learning to sharpen your knives will take. Think of it this way — you can always make back your investment by sharpening your friend's knives in exchange for beer! Jonathan has a great series of videos online explaining the ideas behind the process here.

Another point that I would make is that while I was very much emphasizing the 240mm knives in my initial article, I would say that after using my 240mm for a while, a majority of home cooks would likely be happier with 210mm knives. I really like my 240mm wa-gyuto, but I had Callie cut a bit with it and she agreed that she would have preferred the 210mm if she was the one buying it. 

Aside from the size of your hand and control over the larger blade, a major issue that will push people toward the 210mm is that even a large home cutting board (mine is 13" x 16") feels very cramped when you have a knife with a 9.5" blade. In my initial article I should have emphasized getting a larger and nicer cutting board. Japanese Knife Imports has some cutting surfaces they recommend if you contact them. Aside from that a Sanituf board would be a good bet. 

Another note on my original article would be that you will really want to learn how to use a pinch grip before selecting your knife. Handles that seem awkward to hold in the standard "hammer" grip are often perfect when held in pinch. Many of the handles on the better knives are only set up to be comfortable with this grip style. It will only take a couple of sessions to learn to love this hold, since it offers way more ergonomics and control. Here's a quick video to show you how to hold a knife like a pro.

The other observation I have is that with the wide diversity in types of Japanese chef's knives available, I can more firmly recommend them to all levels of home cooks. If you are a novice, get a novice knife. No need to stay Western at all like I implied in the initial article. (I just bought a friend and his wife a simple but nice Japanese chef knife for their wedding.) If you are more veteran with a bag of whetstones, then you can more easily get a more expensive knife. Having only basic skills I feel totally fine with a $150 knife but there are excellent knives below $100. 

I wouldn't change too much in my list of knives to buy. The only major change is that really I wouldn't recommend the Wustoff Ikon, if just because at it's price the Japanese knives are a better value. I would additionally add three great options to the list from Japanese Knife Imports.

If you're curious what knife I got, I ended up picking up a medium-level knife that wasn't on my original list, but which I'll share here. It is a 240mm stainless steel wa-gyuto from Japanese Knife Imports's Gesshin Uraku line. A fantastic knife that many line cooks in LA use at $155.00 with saiya (the wooden protector). Not to hard nor too soft, light and easy to handle. It's a perfect starting knife. 

A less arty photo of the 240mm Gesshin Uraka wa-gyuto.

A bit higher end, the other knife at Japanese Knife Imports that I was considering was the Zakuri Aogami Super Kurouchi line.  It is a bit more rustic of a knife, but with exceptional steel (high carbon so I wasn't totally comfortable with learning on it.)

If you want something a little less expensive than the Gesshin Uraku which I purchased, Japanese Knife Imports has a great line of Suien INOX guytos. Being easy to use and amazingly well made it is a great value at $125.00! 

The final footnote on my original article is that even if you tldr'ed and skimmed these two posts of mine, then you're more than ready to buy a knife. Once I got over the initial fear, the process was actually fun because I learned that if you are shopping with good stores like Japanese Knife Imports, you're going to get a great knife no matter what — So relax and find one you like then go to work in the kitchen!


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