Expensive Chef's Knives- Are they necessary?
Updated: May 7, 2020
Knives are an integral part of a chef's toolkit. They're the backbone and driving force behind any kitchen. And there are literally thousands of different kinds of knives, from the unusual Serbian chefs knives, to German classics, and thousands of brands that make them. Knowing which ones you should buy is a tricky question, especially for a young chef or someone inexperienced. I'm going to try and talk through the different kinds of knives that are out there, and whether you are an aspiring professional or just an avid home cook, maybe I can help provide a bit of clarity on what you need.
Now a lot of people like to wank on about knives, and I’ve been a chef for years and I’ve met lots of different chefs, and a some of them obsessively take pride in their collection and having a full matching set of top of the line knives. That’s good for them, and their's nothing wrong with that. But I’ve also met Chefs who couldn’t give a rats arse about it. They’ll use something simple and decent, professional, but with a plastic handle, basically entry level professional knives. Because they’re cheap and functional and sharpen easily. Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating buy knives at the grocery store. They won't last you
Knives are one of those things that people tend to obsess about. The quality of the blade, the tempering of the steel, the angle and thickness of the blade.
I feel like they are the kind of thing that any decent hipster knows way too much about, and if they are reading, they probably I'm a heathen and what an ignorant areshole I am. And there might be a degree of truth to that. But I'm not an amateur. I've been doing this most of my life, and I know marketing bullshit when I see it. I know the actual practical uses of that extra .1% angle on the blade you bought is probably very useless unless, you need that paper thin translucent slice of tomato that you see in knife adverts, which no fucker really needs. Let's be realistic about that. There will be a lot of people who will wax an lyrically about how their knives are forged on mount Olympus from the hardest steel found only in asteroids, blah blah blah. And yes that’s great but seriously, it’s a knife. You cut shit with it, and unless you’re a fine dining chef needing to make very precise cuts for presentation, I would argue, that you don’t need to spend a fortune on what is a lot of marketing, or on attributes that you’ll never notice and never need. I’ve been a chef for over 25 years and I don’t even need the knives I have. And that makes me sound like the biggest hypocrite, because I own the knives that I'm disparaging. But to be honest, owning something like a $400 knife is an exercise in vanity more than practicality, and I have to admit I've gone down that path before, and I've learned the expensive way, that you don't need to do that. It will last you a lifetime, but most knives will if you treat them right.
I'll reduce it all down to a couple of simple elements. Expensive knives generally are made of harder steel, they are harder to sharpen but stay sharper longer. Some styles, especially recently, tend to trend for thinner blades. Cheaper knives are made with softer steel, they're easier to sharpen, they can be just as sharp as an expensive knife, but they typically dull quicker. That’s 90% of what you need to know. The rest is just smoke and mirrors, design and marketing. I’d argue if you’re cooking at home, how much actual cutting are you doing? People cooking at home isn't the same kind of work load as a young chef standing with 20 kg's of carrots to peel and cut? As a young chef I remember working at a place called Mustard Catering in London. We looked after the Royal Family quite often. Very high end catering and there would be days where that is all that we did.
It reminds me of a story. When we had large state banquets, we would have some very precise work to do in significant volume. The kitchen was divided up in sections. The hardest section by far was the veg section. There was so many little details that had to be taken care of and so much volume. I remember walking in one day and there were baby carrots that needed peeling, trimming and cleaning. The stacks of cases were taller than me, there were rows and rows of them and they all needed doing. The veg chef was a guy called Stan, a French guy. There was always an ongoing animosity between Stan and the English chefs. Stan was a stickler for detail. I once asked him during a smoke break, standing outside in the damp London cold, cigarette smoke and out breath surrounding our little huddle. Stan smoked Marlboro reds, he wasn't that desperate kind of smoker, vigorously puffing away. He was very casual in his perfect French demeanour, like a professional with his cigarette always dangling off the tip of the cheeky corner of his mouth, barely every touching his hand. We wore these skull caps in the kitchen, the kind with the brim folded up. Stan didn't accept this convention, he always wore his hat straight up, no folded brim. Ridiculous, but effortlessly cool in his I don't give a shit way. I said to him "look at all of the carrots we need to do, why are we taking these extra steps? The last guy in this role, just had us do this, and it was good enough and was much faster?" Stan's reply was amazingly French. As he took a big drag of his stinky French Marlboro, and on this occasion, brought his hand cupped to his lips and simultaneously grasped his cigarette between his fingers and brought his hand down and used that Marlboro as if it was an additional finger to point at me. He inhaled with a smoker's draw and said to me, "Because, I will know the difference, and I am not like these Fucking English cunts. They are all assholes. We only do things perfect or not at all." Stan was a legend. Didn't beat around the bush, when he could be bothered to articulate an opinion. Stan had a fantastic menagerie of random knives. He was not pretentious in the slightest, but he wanted perfection. He was talented and practical, and not one to fall for marketing or wank.
Contrary to Stan, who was older and more experienced, there were some younger chefs who had full sets of Global knives and were so precious with them, babying, polishing and using them like jewellery to show off their taste in fashion. Stan was a workhorse, and no one ran that impossible section better than him. He typically used the kind of "house" knives that you see in most commercial kitchens, used by the people who didn't bring their own knives. They can often be neglected, abused, and dull as fuck, but looked after well, they can be just as sharp and equally as useful as a top of the line German blade. These are what typical professional kitchen knives look like.
I've had a few people mention to me that they can never "hone" their cheaper knives to be sharp enough. After a while, a cheap or expensive knife is going to need a new edge ground into it. I recommend getting it done professionally, but this is key to making sure all your knives are sharp. And then you can maintain that edge with a stone.
I made a video which I will post a link to below, where I review my classical collection of German and Japanese chef's knives vs some cheap but well made knives made in China that i saw on the internet and decided to have a play with. And I have to say in all honesty, the cheaper knives that came from China are my favourite. They are so radically rustic and unfinished, it is so refreshing. But more importantly they are fantastic knives. They are so dangerously sharp, and have maintained their sharpness almost a year later. I absolutely love them.
Comparing them, the German knives rate about a 56-58 on the Rockwell scale of hardness.... I know, "Rockwell". Where as my Chinese made, Serbian chef's knife is around a 60. The blades are thin and sharp and great for precision cutting, whereas the standard German knife is too, but they are often a bit cumbersome and generic to get any easy specialised result. Whereas these are great at performing a lot of different roles. I know there will be some knife people shaking their heads right now, but in my 25 years of experience as a chef, I can put my experience behind my point of view. Everyone is different of course, but I like to look for the least obvious thing, they are often the most interesting.
I used to put on these lavish dinners for a law firm, where there was no budget. The wines I would get in were over the top. We'd be having Chateau latour, and Chateau d'Yquem at every opportunity, because I wanted to try them. After a while though, as amazing as they are, it became like anything you grow accustomed to, boring. Flawless but boring. I then started researching more interesting, but less expensive wines. Wines with something less obvious to give. I met a great wine connoisseur in Borough market, who was my guru for those interesting gems. “There's a much deeper and meaningful conversation being conducted in the space between the lines.”, In other words, the obvious stuff, isn't always the most interesting.
I certainly think my less fancy knives are definitely more interesting and more practical. And for $100 or less, they certainly are excellent value for money. So whatever journey you are on, I'm sure, like me, most people will follow the hype first, latch on to the marketing and accessorize their culinary exploits with the shiny thing. Just remember you don't have to. I think people often strive for credibility and proving themselves with the accoutrements you'd expect a professional chef to have. I can tell you, Stan wouldn't do it, and he's badass! My friend Nick summed up, "Buy what your ego can afford. You might need a Ferrari. But if you can get the job done in a Ford Fiesta, then buy that motherfucker now and enjoy your road trip more with all that extra cash". Wisdom.
If you are interested, have a look at my video I made comparing my knives. Here's the link. There's also links there where you can get these knives.