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Revolution in the kitchen

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Start out with what blend of metals you want in the steel (or even if you want steel at all. Ceramic knives are available too.) What about those Kullenschliff or Granton grooves? Do you want the blade sharpened on both sides, as usual, or “chisel-ground” on only one?

Feel like giving up already? Relax.While all of these points are important in theory, when it comes to actual kitchen work, most of them don’t mean much. This is going to sound like heresy to true knife lovers. They will rattle on about molybdenum and vanadium the way wine geeks talk about Pinot Noir clones and rootstock, and compare Rockwell hardness numbers the way others memorize Parker scores. Different manufacturers have different recipes for their steels, but in my experience, they all work well. Japanese blades tend to be harder and hold an edge longer. German steels are a little softer but that means dulled edges can be honed back into razor shape more easily.

Neither would I worry too much about those Granton grooves, the elongated dimples that are found on the cutting edges of some knives (including Ray’s signature santoku). These are familiar from knives designed for slicing hams and other large roasts. They are supposed to keep whatever is being sliced from sticking to the blade, allowing a cleaner cut. This may be true, but they don’t make a noticeable difference on a chef’s knife, which is more often used for chopping than long slicing strokes.

Slightly more important is the question of whether the knife is sharpened on only one side of the blade. This is another Japanese tradition, allowing thinner, cleaner slices (many Japanese knives come in left- and right-handed versions). It does have its drawbacks -- mainly that it makes a thinner, more brittle edge. If you are an enthusiastic chopper, this could turn into a real problem.

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The most important consideration, though, is the shape and heft of the knife. Which brings us to the actual testing, because this is one instance where I found the knife’s form really affected its function. Theory is interesting, but there’s no getting around the advantages of getting your hands dirty.

The familiar Western chef’s knife does not exist traditionally in Japan. Instead, the closest equivalents are the popular santokus, which are used for slicing vegetables, and gyutous, which are more often used for chopping (the literal translation of gyutou is “large meat knife,” but in practice it is used as an all-purpose knife).

You can tell the difference quite easily: Santokus tend to be smaller than chef’s knives (usually less than 6 1/2 inches in blade length) and they have a relatively flat cutting edge with a down-turned spine (that’s the part that runs down the back of the blade). Gyutous are bigger (8 inches and up) and they have a slight curve to the cutting edge, though not as pronounced as a German belly -- more like the old-fashioned French knives.

Despite their popularity, the two santokus I tried just didn’t have the heft to do the jobs I normally require of a chef’s knife. They aren’t long enough to mince a bunch of parsley and they aren’t heavy enough to chop vegetables easily. This is true of a low-priced model made by Masahiro, but even more so of an expensive ceramic Westernized model made by Kyocera, which seems to have no more heft than a feather (my old German knife weighs almost 10 ounces, a typical gyutou is 6 to 7 ounces and the Kyocera weighs just a little more than 3 ounces).

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Paradoxically, this lightness actually makes you work harder at cutting, because you don’t have the knife’s heft to help you out. Even something as simple as slicing carrots turns into a chore. And don’t even think about cutting up a winter squash.

Picking a favorite

Discarding those two santokus was easy. Choosing among the four gyutous was much harder. They are all laser-sharp right out of the box and unlike my old Wusthof, which requires regular steeling to stay sharp, they all maintain their edges quite well. They are all equally easy to work with. (I didn’t test a Global since I’ve used them in the past and found their stylish steel handles emotionally cold.)

With equipment at this level, especially something as personal as a knife, the choice really comes down to personal feel. In working with them repeatedly and over time, there were a few things that stuck out.

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The Kershaw Shun chef’s knife has a Japanese-style handle, roughly elliptical in cross-section and kind of an off-center “D” shape. It is more comfortable than I expected, but still it is not fitted to the hand like the European knives I’m used to. It also seems to be slightly more blade-heavy than the others.

The Suisin Inox gyutou is probably the most beautiful of the knives I tried, with a striking two-tone wooden handle. It is extremely sharp and very well-balanced, but it is sharpened on only one side and feels slightly brittle when cutting.

Even with their flaws, I would have been happy with either of these. Although there are a thousand details that can make a knife slightly off, what makes a knife perfect can be summed up in one word: chemistry. The first time I picked up my two favorite knives -- gyutous made by Hattori and Misono -- I felt like I was shaking hands with old friends.

In the end, I’ll choose the Misono, but only by the smallest of margins. What it really comes down to is that the traditional Japanese lack of a bolster (the shoulder between the blade and the handle) is slightly more noticeable on the Hattori, which brings my knuckles a little too close to that razor-sharp blade when I’m chopping with the knife in a pinch grip (now that’s really picky). And then there’s the $60 difference in price.

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But in all the most important respects, the knives are equal -- the balance is perfect; the handles fit my hand like they were made for me. There is such a feeling of control that it feels more like using a paintbrush than a tool. Cutting is a pleasure. Believe it or not, I now look for recipes that require lots of dicing. More brunoise? You bet.

The knives are so sharp that the blade slices through with a snick rather than a thunk. Carrot rounds, which used to scatter across the cutting board, fall neatly into place. Even feta cheese, which normally crumbles as much as it cuts, can be diced into neat cubes.

And if I cry when I’m chopping onions, rest assured, they’re tears of joy.

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The gyutous have it

What makes the perfect knife comes down to personal taste. Here are the four I liked best.

Misono UX10 Gyutou ($139.60 from Korin). A beautifully made, incredibly sharp knife, with a very comfortable Western-style handle. It is hard to imagine anything better.

Hattori Damascus Gyutou ($199 from World of Knives). Razor-sharp and perfectly balanced. This knife has a Damascus blade, made of wavy overlapping bands of metal (beautiful, but purely decorative) and a Western-style handle.

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Suisin Inox Western-Style Gyutou ($84.50 from Korin). A beautiful knife with a comfortable handle that’s a combination of light and dark woods. Very sharp and well-balanced; this one also has a slightly deeper belly. The chisel edge that’s sharpened on one side feels slightly brittle.

Kershaw Shun Gyutou ($99.95 from Sur la Table). Another Westernized gyutou, with slightly more belly than is traditional. It also has a Damascus blade. It is slightly heavier than other gyutous, very sharp and well-balanced. The wooden handle is nearly elliptical, with a slight D-shape -- it is surprisingly comfortable, though not traditional.

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Shopping for knives on the Web

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In the legend of King Arthur, probably the greatest tale of knife shopping ever told, Arthur searches all of England for a replacement for his trusty Excalibur before a mystical lady appears from the middle of a lake and hands it to him.

It wasn’t a gossamer-clad arm that delivered my dream blade, but a sturdy young man in a familiar brown uniform. You can buy anything on the Internet these days. And if you’re looking for high-end knives, that’s where you’ll probably wind up. There are dozens of sites to shop at, but the ones I liked best were the two run by the New York knife shop Korin and the online-only World of Knives and Blade Gallery.

Korin, a small Japanese knife store in Manhattan that has become something of a mecca for chefs, currently has not one, but two websites. Korin is in the process of merging them, but hasn’t yet. The main one for buying knives is www.Japanese- knife.com. It is graphics-intense and loaded with cool stuff like chef biographies, interviews and testimonials. Strangely, though, background information on specific knives is slim to none. More than a dozen brands are offered, including Suisin, Nenox, Glestain, Misono, Masamoto and MAC. The plainer www.korin.com offers the same selection in a less graphics-intense version. Both sites are offering 15% off list prices until Dec. 18.

The website www.bladegallery.com has a well-edited selection of mostly Japanese kitchen knives, ranging from affordable to pricey (the top-of-the-line Hattori gyutou is more than $1,200). There are also artisan knives by Canadian chef Thomas Haslinger and others. The site provides a wealth of background information.

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For a more international feel, check out www.worldknives.com, where knives from France, Germany and Belgium, as well as Japan, are offered. In-depth information on each knife is available. Japanese brands include Masahiro and the second, less expensive of Hattori’s lines (manufactured by Ryusen).

Because the choice of a knife depends so much on personal feel, all of these sites allow you to return a knife within seven days, provided it hasn’t been used.

If the information at these sites isn’t enough for you, or if you find yourself really interested in blade geometry and steel recipes, there are two good websites on knives and the people who love them.

At www.bladeforums.com, be sure to check out Joe Talmadge’s admirable explanation of steel and its variations, listed in the FAQ section.

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There is a specific section on kitchen knives at www.knifeforums.com, where you can read in-depth reports on various brands and where a friendly, knowledgeable group will answer your questions.

With either site, do be aware that knife lovers are a varied group and traveling too far off the kitchen knife path can lead to what might be strange adventures. Blade Forums has a section on combat knives, and Knife Forums has one devoted to “Christian Knife Enthusiasts.”

Arthur would feel right at home.


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