When you talk to professional chefs about knives, you get a variety of opinions on brands, styles, and materials. They'll go off into a mysterious world of gripping styles and cutting techniques like the brunoise, the chiffonade, the julienne, and the paysanne.
In the world of the professional chef, cuts have to be precise for presentation and consistency. If the vegetables are cut to different thicknesses, they won't cook to the same level. Also, as Umai restaurant's Ken Lumpkin puts it, "You eat with your eyes as well as your taste and smell."
Ask local chefs for advice, and what you get are two consistent themes: stories about cutting themselves early in their careers and the suggestion that your average home chef should keep their knives sharper.
Consider the response of José Gutierrez, chef and owner of Encore, when asked what's the best knife for a home kitchen: "One that's sharp all the time and easy to keep sharp."
In part, that's a tip to save us some effort.
"People see chopping as kind of a chore because it's difficult," says Marisa Baggett, a sushi chef at Tsunami. "But most of the time, the problem isn't with chopping. It's with sharpening. Most home chefs don't really know much about sharpening their knives, and it does make a huge difference."
Keeping your knives sharp is also a safety tip, which may seem counterintuitive. But let's say you're cutting a squash. If you have to use a lot of force to get the knife through the thing, you've just amplified the danger of the knife going where it isn't supposed to go. Also, if you're going to get cut, you're better off with a nice, clean cut from a sharp blade.
So how sharp are we talking? "If your knife doesn't sink into the skin of a tomato on its own, it's time [to get it sharpened]," Baggett says.
Memphians can take their knives to the kitchen equipment store Forty Carrots, where blades are sharpened by hand. Cost starts at $5 per knife depending on the size and condition of the blade. The store also sells a honing tool by Edgemaker, which Forty Carrots owner Phyllis Cline says is "almost" idiot-proof. (She used to call it idiot-proof until someone screwed it up.)
After knives have been professionally sharpened, a few passes a year with a sharpening stone (about $70 for a base and stone) ought to do it.
And that cool-looking steel rod you see chefs whipping their blades against? That doesn't sharpen the knife. "It just conditions it and takes out the kinks," Baggett says. "You need a whetstone or oilstone to actually remove some of the metal and sharpen it."
Different blade materials have different qualities when it comes to sharpening. Most chefs recommend stainless steel for home use because it sharpens faster, keeps the edge longer, won't rust, and requires less maintenance than the higher-carbon materials. Lumpkin says to look for a blend of stainless with molybdenum, an element used in metal alloys.
But which knives to buy? Well, the good news is that, unless you're a pro or obsessive, you don't need to drive yourself nuts worrying about the bolster, the balance, and the heel or whether the tang runs the full length of the handle. (Yes, those are terms in the knife world.)
The pros say to first ask yourself what kind of cooking you do. Are you a meat-and-steamed-veggies person, or do you think you might one day, as Lumpkin does at Umai, cut a carrot into the shape of a blossom?
Just about any store has that basic set of knives in a block, usually with a steel rod: a chef's knife (the big one, usually 8 to 10 inches), a paring knife (2 to 4 inches), a boning knife (about 6 inches and flexible), and a serrated bread knife. All our chefs said that's pretty much what you need. As for brands, Gutierrez mentioned Chicago Cutlery and Viking. Lumpkin likes Misono, Masahiro, and Korin, but he says, "Mainly, you want something with some good weight in your hands."
And it really does matter which knife you use. Try peeling an apple with a chef's knife sometime instead of a paring knife. Or actually, don't.
Lumpkin says you should have a basic understanding of chopping, dicing, and slicing, and the basic safety tips are to keep your fingertips back, let your knuckles guide the knife, take your time, and keep your eyes on what you're cutting. Baggett tells a funny story about cutting herself at a sushi counter because she was having a "difference of opinion" with a fellow chef.
Viking Cooking School offers monthly classes in knife skills, maintenance, and safety. They run $59, and the next one with available room at their Memphis location is June 14th. If nothing else, after you take that class, you'll know the difference between a julienne and a chiffonade.