The chef’s knife - a perfect foodie’s Christmas present
I've been a chef since the day I left school.
I fell in love with the ways of the pro kitchen around the age of 13/14 when two events collided; I watched and was mesmerised by the food on Gary Rhodes' programme, Rhodes around Britain, (the hair!) and I was placed in a local hotel/resort in the lake district for my two week work experience placement from school. There I learnt how to wash both vegetables and dishes, and was even allowed to place the odd salad on a plate for a paying customer, WOOP! But it was enough, I was hooked. They offered me a part time dish washing job and I loved it, mainly because I had money when my friends didn’t, but also I just loved the work place and the atmosphere. Music while we worked, free food, camaraderie. Different every day, no desk and no smart clothes.
I've never looked back. An artist can't paint without brushes, a bus driver can't steer without a wheel, an office worker would be lost without their keyboard and a chef can't work without knives.
Any decent chef is rather attached to their blades. They become friends. You spend so much time with them you see them way more than your actual friends; they're dependable to do the job when you need them and like extensions of your arm.
I acquired my first proper full on set when I was 18, on said birthday.
I was over the moon with it. I still have it. Though it's since been upgraded to a Japanese version, the original lives on in my kitchen drawer at home, rather than in my professional knife roll. I recently used it to smash into a can of paint I was angry with. It's still a bit of a beast.
Knives over this time have come and gone. I’ve had a few pilfered, others have been traded, some didn't make the grade and got relegated to home use or gifted. What remains are a choice few.
What I love most about my job as a chef teacher, is passing on knowledge to people and seeing their faces light up with joy, as the simplest tasks change their lives for the better. OK, so I’m no bloody UN peace keeper, but just last week a lovely lady called Helen brought her best friend in for a knife skills lesson to celebrate a birthday. Helen described onions as her nemesis. I showed her how to beat them once and for all, and she was over the moon. She still is. I know this as she sent me pictures of her new improved chopping skills on instagram. Fair warmed my cockles it did, it makes getting out of bed and trotting off to work, while everyone else snoozes in on a Sunday morning, worth it.
One of the questions I’m asked most in my job is what is my favourite knife and why?
Well for me it's an easy question to answer. My favourite knife is a 10” Shun Kai Damascus chef's knife. Here it is in my profile photo:
What I actually really want in my life is a handmade knife from this amazing looking man in South Carolina called Chris Williams, but my budget hasn't quite stretched to that yet. I just know THAT knife would be my favourite, but as to what your favourite knife would be, is personal and subjective.It's like choosing a puppy or naming a child, you need to love it.
The Shun would be a Christmas gift from heaven for any passionate cook, but weighing in at over £150 it is a wallet buster. If you need something less flashy and more stocking filler, then I recommend Victorinox kitchen knives. This 8.5 inch chef's knife will set you back no more than £30 and is a great little tool to have in your arsenal. I use them at home. For an extra £10 or so you can upgrade to the posher rosewood handle, which is lovely to touch. They have an extensive range, from paring to bread knives and back again. Lot's of department stores carry a nice selection. Have a look while doing your Christmas shopping. No keen cook woudl be disappointed with one of these to aid their efforts with Christmas lunch.
What will a good knife do for you?
Alas a good knife won't actually make you a good cook. This is not the sword of Excalibur we're talking about, but a good knife really can improve your confidence and your cooking abilities just by making your life easier. A dull knife is more dangerous to use as if you slip the cut is way worse than with a sharp knife as the force you were applying to a blunt knife is way more than with a sharp one. So less ouchy. One reason alone there to spend a few pounds more.
What knives does a foodie really need?
You only really need one good chef's knife, one good pairing knife, a serrated knife and something with a slightly thinner flexible blade for filleting fish and such like. Add a sharpening steel and your kit is done, so spend more buying less and you will achieve better quality.
Look at the handle, feel it. How is it? Too heavy? Too chunky? Too small? Or just right. The right knife will feel like you've always had it, an extension of your hand.
Consider your cutting board. Is it small or large? What is it made of? (if it's not wood or easy-to-clean high density plastic, bin it, everything else ruins knives). If your board is quite small there is no point buying a 12” chefs knife. Fit your means, as it were.
Don't buy knives from anywhere you can't give them a wee test drive. If they can't produce even a cutting board for you to rock them on then go elsewhere. You need to know how that monster feels.
Consider balance, if it feels too weighty at the back of the handle for you or wants to teeter to one side when you bring the blade down, it's not the one for you
Looking after your knives
Dishwasher. They are a no. Don't put your knives in them. It can ruin the handles over time and make them come away from the blade and it can affect the steel. It can also dull your edges.
Where to keep it? Loose in a drawer is bad, consider getting a nice magnetic strip rack to hold them, its more hygienic too. Failing that a good block or buy one of those little plastic blade sheaths. Amazon certainly does them, and keep it on!
Now sharpen - sharpen often, and learn to do it right. You want one of those long pole devices called a steel. This will maintain your edge a lot longer. There are some great videos out there showing you the correct way to do this but basically place the tip of the steel on your work surface, then place the knife on the steel all the way at the back of the heel of the blade at a very slight angle, about 10-15 degrees. Now run the knife blade down the steel all the way to the tip and repeat the other side. Do this every day after using your knives before you put them away and they will stay your happy sharp buddies a lot longer. When they do finally need a proper sharpening you need a whetstone and the knowledge to use one. Again, videos! I would honestly take them to your local butcher or fishmonger once or twice a year instead if you can. They will help you out.
Just remember that old saying, buy once and buy well. I think the only equipment in a kitchen you need to spend a tonne on is pans and knives.
It's been 16 years since I got that cleaver. It's still worthy of its job and I expect it to be for a good amount of years yet. Buy well and you will be able to say the same about your new blades.