Food April 2007

Never a Dull Moment

What to look for when buying knives
Also see:

Cool Cuts
Three must-own knives—and a really desirable optional one.

Like most people, I have a random collection of knives, bought at moments of culinary ambition and at good sales. Also like most people, I use only a very few of them with any regularity—and my preferences are unrelated to what they cost or to promises that some ultra-new metal will change my life. Recently a very cool-looking set of knives designed by a local metalsmith made me cast a critical eye on my odd knife collection.

A cook’s relationship to a knife, after all, is very personal: You want the knife to respond to your abilities even as its shape and sharpness make you respond to its own. Adam Simha understands this relationship. He grew up immersed in science and design—his father was director of planning at MIT, where Adam majored in physics—and he worked in Boston and Cambridge kitchens as a chef and a baker. A metalworking class he took on a whim drew him so deeply to metal that he decided to turn what was becoming a full-time hobby into his work. The company he founded, MKS Design, started by making furniture; I first encountered Simha’s low tables and high, heavy, comfortable enameled stools at the Cambridge ice-cream store Toscanini’s, a nexus for cooks and intellectuals (Simha made ice cream there before and after graduating from MIT, and calls the shop’s owner, Gus Rancatore, “the root of my entire career”).

Knives were potentially more profitable than furniture, and more challenging, if less spectacular. Tools people use every day, Simha believed, should be “compelling, beautiful, their favorite.” He made himself a prototype chef’s knife with a long blade and a big round handle. In his North Cambridge workshop, outfitted with a lathe and a stamp and workbenches covered with handleless blades, he told me that even after two or three years of use, that prototype “still makes me smile.”

Simha hit on an idea that made chefs, store owners, and design editors smile too: using bicycle grips, with their deep grooves for the fingers, as knife handles. Tightly fitted over gleaming steel tubes, the candy-red, -green, and -blue plastic grips caused the young son of David Marks, a retailer who bought Simha’s line for his Stoddard’s Cutlery, to ask if they lit up.

The cheerful, striking handles get Simha through the door, but it is his craftsmanship that persuades knife sellers to carry the knives and chefs to use them (and justifies the price: MKS knives retail for $150–$225). The blade, thicker than those of many other knives, is made of high-performance steel, as any new and expensive knife must be. Simha experiments with styles and patterns in his workshop and sends model blades to a steel producer in Sheffield, England, long a world knife capital. Once or twice a year he goes to Sheffield to “get together around the forge” and hammer out production details. When the finished blades arrive at his workshop, he welds on handles, the position varying with the style of knife. Then he inspects the grinding of the edge—perhaps the most important step in making a high-quality knife. For many of his blades he chooses a Japanese-style single-bevel edge, flat on one side. This edge affords precise cuts and is easy to sharpen.

After listening to Simha describe his design process and working with the set of knives he lent me, plus some other new models—I did need, after all, to experiment with a few Japanese heartthrobs—I understood much more about how and why I use the knives I like. This experience led me to formulate some buying advice for any cook longing to be at one with a knife.

Never buy a set. Few people use more than three knives, and it’s practically inconceivable that one manufacturer will make the three likeliest to please you (or will sell them as a set).

Don’t underestimate the handle. In holding and trying each of my knives, however rotten-looking and dull the blade, I found the feel of the handle to be the most important factor in how often I use it. It should be like shaking hands with an old friend, according to the Los Angeles Times food columnist Russ Parsons. I like the warmth of wood and plastic (knives made by Global, the first Japanese brand to attract attention here, have unpleasantly cold, narrow metal handles), and flat sides, which orient my hand, rather than rounded ones.

After the handle, think about the blade—the overestimated heart of knife mystique. If the blades you use most often are thin, you’ll be drawn to Japanese knives, known for very thin and sharp blades. I have long prized a short, super-sharp knife, shaped like a snub-nosed mini-cleaver, that a friend brought me back from Japan (and probably paid a fortune for). The carbon-steel blade rusts constantly and is so thin that its edge has chipped through use. But I still love the inch-high blade and try to save it for special occasions.

Knives by German makers such as Wüsthof and Henckels, two close rivals (the sellers I spoke with prefer the craftsmanship and performance of Wüsthof), have far sturdier, stainless steel blades, whose heft helps you cut through dense foods. Carbon steel—familiar in Sabatier knives (a region, not a brand) and old-fashioned French knives—is very easy to sharpen, because it’s soft; but it blackens and rusts and is a pain to keep clean. Stainless steel with a lower carbon content, like what Simha and others use, is both soft enough to sharpen and hard enough to retain a good edge for a few months. (Ceramic blades, which come in surprising colors and seem dangerously brittle, are much tougher than they look and can keep their edge for several years; but they offer no heft at all.)

Many of the old rules about knives have been made obsolete by technology. For example, you can ignore the dictate that the tang, as the continuation of the blade into the handle is called, should run clear to the end; manufacturers can simply weld the blade to a handle that looks as if it has three rivets. In fact, Simha prefers to vary the length of the tang, depending on the balance he wants.

Many of the newer rules are worth ignoring, too. In the ’90s, when Japanese knives became popular, Damascus steel—folded and pounded as many as 32 times to make it flexible and strong, and said to be of samurai-sword quality—was the only kind to have. But plain-surface steel can be just as flexible and strong, and the pretty moiré pattern that folding produces can be mechanically applied. Forged knives, with a thickness that increases at the handle end of the blade, were always recommended over cheaper, stamped knives, whose blades were cut like cookies, out of a sheet of steel. But sellers told me that the finishing of the blade matters much more, and that stamped knives should by no means be dismissed. Inexpensive knives can be surprisingly good. Victorinox knives, for instance, which are stamped, are ground and honed better than many forged knives.

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Corby Kummer is an Atlantic senior editor. More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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