Cutting to the Point: Talking Knives with Three Restaurant Chefs
Misono, Masamoto, Messermeister, Wüsthof and Kyocera among the chefs’ favorite brands
By Lucas Witman
Ask a chef if she or he has any thoughts about how to pick out a good knife, and you had better be prepared for an extended conversation. This is what I discovered when I sat down with three chefs from Zona 78, a popular Italian enoteca located in Tucson, Ariz. Chefs Kevin Fink, Keith Parker and Jeremy Edwards opened up about what makes a good knife, what kinds of knives a chef should have in his or her arsenal, and what companies are currently making the best pieces at the best prices.
For a chef, there is perhaps no kitchen tool more important than a good knife. At Zona 78, knives play a particularly important role, as the chefs there are at the same time crafting delicate dishes, necessitating precise cuts, and breaking down whole animals for chops and housemade charcuterie. Because of the range of tasks Zona chefs are required to accomplish with their knives, it is vital that they carry a number of different knives, all of very high quality.
“We try to execute high-end food. The knife is the most important tool you can possibly have, so it has to be a good one,” Parker said. “I started with a low-quality knife, and when you go from a low-quality knife to a good knife, you realize how important it is to have a good knife.”
Parker continued, “You can do finer cuts with a good blade. You can obviously butcher whole animals with a good blade. If you have a dull blade, it’s not really possible, or it would take all day to do what we do in maybe two hours.”
For the Zona chefs, using a good quality knife is about more than simply creating a masterful final dish—it is about safety. “I think what the average consumer believes is sharp is incredibly dull for the most part and therefore dangerous too,” Fink said. “A really sharp knife will slide right through a more difficult cut. A blade that’s properly sharp will cut right through that, so therefore you won’t have a problem.”
“You have to use more pressure with a dull knife too, which makes it more dangerous,” Edwards added.
In addition to having good quality knives, it is also important to have a complete collection as well. For professionals, each kitchen task requires just the right tool. For example, when butchering whole animals, the Zona chefs have a diverse selection of knives for this task alone. Breaking down an animal requires skinning knives, boning knives, cleavers and meat saws. Using the wrong knife for this task would at best result in poor cuts of meat and at worst could put the chef in physical danger.
Generally speaking, all three of the Zona chefs prefer Japanese-style knives over other types. “I’ve been sticking with the Japanese-style knives, just because they seem to be more thin, more sharp. They’re easier to sharpen,” Edwards said.
“They use good steel,” Parker said. “There’s no Japanese knife that I know that doesn’t have good steel.”
The quality of the steel is an important consideration when it comes to picking out the correct knife. Regardless of the brand and the type of knife, it is the type of steel used that ultimately determines its usefulness in the kitchen.
Each of the Zona chefs has his own opinion when it comes to precisely which brands of knives with which he likes to work. Fink enjoys working with his Misono chef’s knife, opting for a UX10 Series model crafted from Swedish steel. He also uses a Masamoto knife from New York-based Japanese knife purveyor Korin. Edwards expresses his preference for MAC knives, a brand that is easy to find at U.S. knife shops, and which he perceives to be an excellent value. Parker praises the steel in his preferred German Messermeister knives. After using the same Messermeister chef’s knife for six years, Parker says that the steel has barely worn away at all.
One knife brand that all three chefs praise for its quality and versatility is popular German brand Wüsthof. “Wüsthofs were my first knives I ever bought, and they’re still [great],” Parker said. “I think of them as American-style Japanese knives. They’re good. The steel is good.”
“Wüsthofs for me are a workhorse that you can put through the mill,” Fink added. “If you want a good knife that’s going to be able to get beat up and go through the ringer, and still have a nice edge to it, they’re great for that.”
Finally, Edwards also offered high praise for his smaller ceramic Kyocera Kyotop knife, although he acknowledged that it has certain limitations for use in a restaurant kitchen. “They’re very good knives. They stay sharp for a long time,” Edwards said. “The only issue I see with those is that…you don’t want to keep those around in an industrial kitchen, because they can break real easily. If they fall on the ground, they will break. If a pot hits it, it’s going to break.”
Fink is careful to point out that every knife has certain limitations, and there is no objective model for choosing the perfect option. Picking out a knife is ultimately a matter of personal preference. “Some people like a softer steel, because they want to find that edge very quickly, and they’re going to wear through their knife, but that’s okay,” he said. “Certain people like an incredibly hard steel. It’s going to chip more often, so when it chips you have to wear down through a lot of your knife.”
Fink adds that as important as steel and edge and utility are when it comes to shopping for knives, there is one other element that can not be ignored: design. “Realistically, after you get a really good steel it is about design,” he said. “And picking a good knife for you is about how you think it looks, and therefore feeling good with it.”
CORRECTION: Earlier versions of this story stated at MAC knives are American-made. MAC knives are actually made in Japan.