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Revolution in the kitchen

Sharper, lighter and harder, left- and right-handed -- Japanese knives have changed everything.

December 08, 2004|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

As far as I'm concerned, there are only two really important decisions in a cook's life: choosing a mate and buying a chef's knife. If that seems like an overstatement, you just haven't found the right knife.

With a good knife -- one that is sharp and stays that way; one that fits your hand like it was made for you -- chores become a joy. Cuts are made cleanly and exactly as you intend, with only the slightest effort. Piles of fresh herbs are reduced to tiny confetti in a flash. Onions are diced before a tear can appear.

There is a revolution in kitchen knives going on today: Japanese knives, with thin, sharp blades that cut like scalpels, are redefining the cutting edge. And buying one just might change your life in the kitchen.

The relationship between a cook and his knife is beyond mere utility. It is odd that cold steel could generate such emotion, but while a screwdriver is a tool, a good knife is a body part. Indeed, perhaps at some advanced stage of evolution, those of us who are fascinated by food will come equipped with limbs that slice and dice.

Until then, we must shop. And these days, there are more choices than you might have thought possible.

Slice of variety

Although not so long ago the selection of chef's knives were pretty much limited to two brands (even today, even at the finest kitchenware stores, you probably won't find more than three or four), shop online and you'll find dozens of choices. In addition to the old Western-style chef's knives, now there are Japanese shapes such as santokus and gyutous to consider.

As might be expected in a country where the most celebrated cuisine is largely a matter of perfect slicing, the Japanese have made a fetish of the knife. It seems that every other person I talk to has been raving about these blades. And after a couple of months of testing, I have to say that I too am a convert.

In order to select a chef's knife, I began shopping this summer, trying six blades -- ranging in price from the mid-$60s to almost $200 -- and using each for at least a week before passing judgment. I tried to use the knives for every cutting chore: mincing garlic, carving roasts, peeling winter squash, even decorating my Halloween pumpkin.

In some cases, that week was a real chore; in others, it didn't seem nearly long enough. And, in the end, I did find my dream blade. But that's getting ahead of the story.

Different countries have dominated the kitchen knife world at different times. The last time I bought a chef's knife, 25 years ago, the high-end choices were Wusthof and Henckels, German in manufacture and design. German chef's knives, which are still dominant commercially, are serious pieces of equipment -- heavy, with thick blades that have slightly rounded bellies to facilitate the rocking motion used in chopping and mincing.

French chef's knives, such as those made by the various companies operating under the Sabatier name, were popular before the Germans took over. They are similar to German knives in heft, but the blades are pointier and the bellies flatter. They are more adept at making the kinds of precise cuts you use in dicing onions, for example.

Now it's Japan's turn to get all the attention. Though they are not yet a threat to the Germans in department store home sections, Japanese knives do represent the cutting edge, and anyone who's serious about cooking should consider trying one.

The Japanese rush

The Japanese knife revolution in this country began in the mid-1980s when Global began introducing its knives here. At first, Globals gained a following primarily for their looks -- they were one of the first knives to have steel handles as well as blades, giving them a high-tech, industrial appearance.

But there were other more important differences. Japanese blades are thinner than European ones, the edges feel sharper and they seem to stay that way longer. They are lighter too. Cutting with them feels much more exact.

Soon chefs looking for a new edge began to adopt them, and the Japanese knife rush was on. Today, there are dozens of Japanese brands available in the United States. Global is a standard at high-end kitchen stores as is Kershaw Shun, made by Japanese cutlery giant KAI. Many more brands are available on the Internet.

Even the Germans have taken notice. Wusthof's best selling knife is a santoku. When Food Network celebrity cook Rachael Ray started using it on her show, sales went through the roof. At one point, the company estimated it was selling as many as 5,000 of these knives a week. Henckels has one too.

Fellow television food personality Alton Brown has come out for Kershaw Shun. And MAC, another Japanese firm, has had its knives endorsed by Thomas Keller, Nobu Matsuhisa and Charlie Trotter.

But none of us are so shallow as to be influenced by celebrity endorsements, are we? A decision this big, we want to base on hard evidence.

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