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!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Los Angeles Fried Chicken Festival Pt 2

 For those of you who saw my last post about the Los Angeles Fried Chicken Festival, you were probably wondering "Where the hell is the chicken?" Let's just chalk up the black and white photo essay to the inspiration of the excellent rye whiskey that was being served. As for the chicken, Callie managed to get through all eight recipes, while I only got through the first six. That said, cold fried chicken is brilliant for lunch, doubly so if it's a curry version from Byant Ng (Spice Table). Presented in the order we ate them, not by rank!

#1: Jiltada
This was an amazing spicy-sweet Thai fried 
chicken. Even if this wasn't the most perfectly cooked 
chicken, the ultra-spicy sauce as a condiment
and the assortment of sides tied this dish together. I love 
Jazz's take on Southern Thai cooking and this  
recipe shows how she can take unassuming ingredients
and make something better than the parts.

#2: Baco Mercat
To call us biased toward Josef's work in the 
kitchen doesn't do justice to the raw skill and
direct but complex ideas he creates. This time
he opted for a lightly Morrocon take on fried
chicken that had hints of exotic flavors peeking
out from one of the most perfectly cooked pieces
at the festival (was there preserved 
lemon in there?) The cute shishito peppers on the side 
provided a pleasant bitter contrast to the rich 
chicken. The general manager had also brought a tasty,
lightly sour shrub to make drinks with that
was the perfect pairing for the oily chicken
all around.

#3: Border Grill
I'm always hit or miss on Border Grill (as well 
as completely unimpressed by Street) but
I will give it to them that they know 
Latin flavor combinations exquisitely 
well. This is a Southwestern tostada with
an heirloom bean salad, frisse, and peppers.
This was one of the more fun dishes at the event, even
if the focus wasn't really the fried fowl. If only
I could have gotten a margarita. 

#4: Mo-Chica
Again, Ricardo's modern take on Peruvian food
is a perennial favorite of mine. No surprise that his
extra crunchy fried chicken with fried 
potatoes and verde sauce was outstanding. Honestly
the potatoes were the best side at the event. This
dish would pair gloriously with a funky,
off-dry Spanish white wine. I really need to
hop on the expo line to get back downtown
and check out his new joint.

#5: The Coop
I want to say something nice about this dish
since the two chefs hosted the event in their new space 
(if you wondered, yes, it was the location from Kill Bill).
That said, this dish a complete trainwreck. It was
something with raw cherry tomatoes, black-powder
fried chicken, some sort of melted ice cream, 
melon balls and a strange sauce. The flavors didn't 
merge and the ice cream was a pool of 
lukewarm sweet goo in the bottom of everyone's
plate. It was such a mess of a dish that I couldn't
even fathom what they were going for and was so
unpleasant that I likely won't even be
be visiting their restaurant. Sorry...   

#6: MB Post
Neither of us had heard of David LeFevre or his 
restaurant. However their interesting breading (almost 
like it was wrapped in it's own biscuit) was combined perfectly with their
immaculate frying technique. I had one of these
deeply spiced pieces of chicken the next day for a 
heavenly lunch. Hefty but refined, it made me want
to visit MB Post for sure.

#7 Mozza
Mozza, especially Pizzeria Mozza, ranks high on
my list of amazing food in Los Angeles (and
not just for their generous wine pours coupled
with ultra-fresh mozzarella). That said, their chicken
was probably the most technically perfect
but simultaneously had the least character. It reminded
me of a bland and extra salty version of Ludo's chicken.
However, it's one redeeming grace was it's brilliant, 
buttery, tiny biscuit. Mozza's chicken couldn't possibly
 keep me from being in bliss every time 
I eat at their restaurant though!

#8 Spice Table
Ng's food, especially those glorious wood-roasted pig's tails
which are so far from being even "third date food" that you
might want to be solidly married before attempting to
eat them in front of your significant other, tends toward
an overwhelming cascade of flavors and textures. It was 
no surprise that his extra-crunchy curry chicken
with umami-loaded gravy potatoes was a complete winner. 
As good the next day as it was the first. 

Looking at my reviews, you can clearly see 
that I prefer some more funk in my food given 
that Spice Table and Baco's takes were my top choices.