Soul of the Kitchen

By Todd Duplechan
Photography by Jenna Noel

Forget about Cut Co., Pampered Chef, Wüsthof or the dozens of other knives and knife jockeys courting for space in your block. If you’re serious about cooking, don’t be cheap. Knives are the single most important piece of equipment in the kitchen. And while all of those discount numbers may cut something, a well-placed investment in a quality tool will cut more than the mustard—you will find yourself a lifelong kitchen soul mate.

What should you look for in this steely companion? The key is craftsmanship. No matter what the pedigree of the knife-maker, or which space-age polymer is used to hold everything together, it all comes down to forging a superior blade. For a great many years, Japanese bladesmiths have been the most deft and prolific at this art, and they arrived at it in an unusual way. 

As part of the World War II surrender, Japanese samurai bladesmiths were prohibited from manufacturing their legendary swords. Since they could no longer practice their artistry, they dedicated their renowned skills and resources to making knives. Sleek and light, the resulting tools continue to outperform almost anything on the market.

Top-quality Japanese blades are unique—forged in 2,500-degree kilns, hand-hammered into shape and polished to a mirror shine. Precision and aesthetics play key roles in the design, and with hundreds of years of tradition melded into each knife, the heft, balance and beauty feel like shaking hands with an entire culture.

Although Japanese-style knives are king, to many—including me—the industry is beginning to see some new stars. An innovative hybrid of Japanese, German and American craftsmanship is emerging in the Pacific Northwest. Makers like Kramer Knives and Wildfire Cutlery have studied the masters and responded with excellent tools that combine aspects of Western-shaped blades and Japanese swordmaking. What makes these newcomers uniquely American is the makers’ willingness to embrace both Eastern and Western knife-making skills to develop an exciting amalgam.

So how to choose? There’s a different knife or carving tool for every culinary task—boning knives, slicers, paring knives, sushi knives. A veritable arsenal of cutlery awaits. But it’s best to begin your collection with a knife that every cook needs: a chef’s knife, or Japanese Gyuto. Use it for chopping vegetables and herbs, slicing and butchering fish or meat. Its size and shape lend it to endless uses.

Knives also come in a variety of blade types and prices. Choose one that best fits your needs and budget, and say hello to what will probably be the first of many treasured kitchen soul mates.

Blade types and cost ratings

Carbon Steel: Extremely easy to sharpen and gets very sharp. Will discolor and react with some acidic foods—$$

Blue Steel: Easy to sharpen and maintain. Blades usually have the hardest steel. Most do not discolor or react with food—$$

Stainless Steel: Easy to sharpen and maintain. Does not discolor or react with food—$$$

Damascus: Exquisite layering of stretched and folded metal creates a wood-grain pattern that runs through the cutting edge and results in a micro serration. Will not stain or react with food—$$$$