A bad knife cuts one’s finger instead of the loin. A good knife cuts the loin and everything else, and it doesn’t matter if you’re slicing steaks at hone or in your galley out on the waves. The classic French knife, also known as a chef’s knife, is the most important, most used tool in the galley. It evolved, according to some historians, from designs created to handle large cuts of beef in Solingen, German in the eighteenth century. Knife-maker Johann Peter Henckels, in particular, is known to have registered a trademark for such a design with Solingen’s Cutler’s Guild.
Today’s modern multi-purpose chef’s knives can carry out most of the cutting tasks within a kitchen, including mincing, slicing, dicing, chopping, and disjointing large cuts of meat and fowl. It may not be the best knife for each purpose, but it’s the best overall and a must-have galley item if you like to cook and prepare meals onboard. Get one and learn how to use it. The more you do, the more proficient you’ll become.
My favorite French knife for experienced cooks is a 12-inch Twin Pro “S” model by Zwilling J.A. Henckels, a German manufacturer descended from the firm Johan Peter founded, which is still based in Solingen. The knife has proven so durable that the one I have is becoming a working antique since Henckels no longer offers a 12-inch chef’s knife. However, Henckels offers 10- and 8-inch versions, and its Twin Pro “S” chef’s knives are better choices for all but the most experienced cooks. High-Level Hybrids Like my 12-incher, the 10- and 8-inch versions use high-carbon stainless steel blades that combine the best qualities of carbon steel and ordinary stainless, a hybrid that provides a variety of advantages. They hold their sharp edge for reasonable lengths of time, do not stain or discolor, and are forged from higher-quality alloys than ordinary stainless steel knives. The alloys often include molybdenum, chromium, vanadium, cobalt, and other compounds designed to increase the blades’ strength, sharpness and durability. They also feature full tangs, which means the dull end of the steel blade continues all the way through the handle to the end of the grip. Full tang is a key feature to look for in any quality knife. The Henckels knives are excellent for cutting steaks, be they New York strips, rib eyes or top block sirloins. The 12-inch blade provides more leverage for chopping, enabling a straight, smooth slice through larger cuts of meat. It also works well for splitting whole chickens, and handles as a knife should for filleting fish, splitting lobsters and cutting cabbage chiffonade.
When I began my career over 50 years ago, German and French manufacturers dating back to the 1700s made the best knives. In addition to Henckels, knives by makers like F. Dick, Wüsthof, Messer (now Geisser Messer) and Sabatier could be counted on for high-quality features like full tangs, carbon steel, and hot-forged blades shaped from hand-beaten steel blanks. The German-style knives tend to be more continuously curved all along the cutting edge, allowing it to be rocked up and down. The French style presents a straighter edge until near the end when it curves up to the point. Neither is superior to the other.
Japan Pipes Aboard
In recent years, Japanese chef’s knives, or gyutos, have become popular in the West. Their blades look like flatter versions of a French-style chef’s knife, and use harder, more brittle grades of steel. The Japanese knives evolved from a long but aborted tradition of sword making. In the late nineteenth century, Japan’s rulers made it illegal to carry swords in public, severely shrinking the market for swordsmiths. Many of these revered craftsmen turned to the making of kitchen and restaurant knives. In fact, the period coincided with a broad expansion of urban restaurants and its evolution into a distinct culture with a growing need for specialty knives of all sorts, including ones for fish and beef. After Admiral ‘opened’ Japan to the West in 1854, Japanese knife-makers began adopting and adapting Western styles, including the chef’s knife, which was thought of as a butchering knife that was also good for cutting steaks. As a result, Japanese knives are light, super sharp, well balanced and comfortable to use.
Top manufacturers include Shun, Kyocera, Global, and MAC. Opinions about each brand’s knives vary widely. Top-ranked chefs Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and Per Se restaurants, and Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin, for example, endorse MAC knives, one of the costlier brands. My own experience with a Shun knife found the blade to be not very durable. It developed severe chipping after only a few weeks, and I would not recommend it. Dexter-Russell, established in Massachusetts in 1818, makes the best-known American knife. It’s French chef’s knife has been a workhorse in commercial kitchens across America for decades, and a cost-effective alternative to more expensive imports, even though some chefs question its ability to hold a sharp edge. I have found it to be not as durable as the imports, and more often in need of replacement. A certain prestige accompanies the ownership and use of the latest, greatest, costliest imported knife. However, a skilled cook can get a slicing job done with almost any blade as long as it’s sharp. Owning the right knife is very much a question of personal preference, and something like selecting the right wine. I choose wines that I enjoy and that taste good to me. When it comes to selecting a chef’s knife, so should you.