For a great many cooks the length of one’s chefs knife is a measure of ones authority in the kitchen. Some of us become master vego-matics turning the process of mincing and dicing into high art. Others continue to mutilate vegetables with a light, short and dull blade. Either way, one eventually must learn the delicate balance between violence and nurture by eventually finding a blade capable of both. I like to buy my knives at the local London, Ontario kitchen store Kiss the Cook.
A big knife seals the food it cuts, leaving the vital juices intact rather than on the cutting board. A good knife in the hands of a bold cook conserves human energy as well as the flavour and texture of any ingredient that comes under its blade. A chef’s knife, also known as a French knife, is an elongated, triangular blade heavier at the spine and tapering to a mean thin edge is the one most favoured by professionals and avoided by many amateurs.
This ambivalence can be eased by experience. For example, by thoroughly dicing and slicing panoply of vegetables to create a vegetable soup, you can start to feel more at ease with a big knife. And the results bits of vegetables that burst in the mouth, as opposed to the mush yielded by a dull blade or even worse a blender, will reward the effort. On the other hand, slicing soft plums is a lesson in the delicacy of a sharp knife.
Unlike cleavers, whose form has remained static since the Iron age and which remain capable of bursting joints and of finer work, chefs knives have evolved along with cuisine. The form of the knife has followed its function and lends itself to minute, precise tasks.
The best versions of a chef’s knife are forged cast, blade to tang, in a mold and tamped to create the slope from the spine to the razor thin cutting edge from high carbon stainless steel, an alloy that allows an edge without rusting.
A dull blade is a dangerous hindrance that makes each job messier and more difficult than the last. You can realign the edge of the blade before each use with a few swift rotating swipes on sharpening steel at a 20 degree angle. Every so often, use a sharpening stone to cut a new surface on you blade, substituting coarser stones with finer ones until the blade can split the proverbial hair.
Over sharpening a knife can be just a sinful, grinding away good steel and ending the knifes usefulness long before its time. Electric grinders do the fastest damage, though it is easy enough to ruin a blade on any sharpening tool if you saw away on it long enough. Usually a few good swipes is all it takes.
Nowadays, high quality plastic and composite handles have largely replaced wood and my personal favorite, the Japanese Global knives provides both handle and blade in a single steel casting. The key is choosing a grip and a knife that feels balanced, steady and comfortable. Shake hands with many knives before buying. A good chef’s knife is an extension of the human hand, propelled by human force.
A flick of the sharp tip cuts, a repeated guillotine action slices, a consistent rock-rock-rocking that should, like a good tennis stroke, emanate from the knees, legs, hips and shoulder rather than from the forearm, dices, minces and chops. A swat from the flat side crushes garlic or spices. But the beauty of a chef’s knife is the gentle slope of the blade, built to promote the steady cutting action that, when mastered, becomes a meditative rhythm.
Sometimes I chop things just to relax. Later, surveying bowls of finely chopped vegetables and meat, I decide what to do with them. In the end, cooking is the only thing that separates a weapon from a tool.