The way you treat your knife is just as important—if not more important—than the kind of knife you buy. Rob Johnson reports
You would expect the director of a company that sells high-end knives to be more bothered when a chef tells him, ‘Don’t bother even giving me a knife to try—I just buy cheap ones from Chinatown and throw them out when they get blunt’. “I was in a restaurant in inner-city Sydney, and met a chef who did that,” says Michael Yates, director of Zen Imports. “He was worried the knives would get stolen or people would damage them. In some kitchens that just won’t happen, but in some others the knives are just there, lying around.”
Yates’ point is that when it comes to choosing a knife, we’re talking about horses for courses, and if you have solid reasons for buying something cheap and disposable, you probably should do so.
“Everyone’s got different requirements,” he says. “If you ask ten people they’ll give you ten different answers.” Far more important is how you maintain the knife—whether it’s a top-end German or Japanese steel, or a cheap Chinese generic one, it’s critical to maintain the edge for the tool to work properly.
“That’s the way today, isn’t it? You buy something, it breaks, and you throw it out and buy another one,” says Leigh Hudson from Chef’s Armoury in Sydney. “With anything, though, quality lasts much longer, so it costs you less in the long run. Being able to professionally sharpen your knives is just as important as the kind of knife you buy.”
“We were discussing at a sales conference about getting a Hills Hoist and hanging a thousand carrots off it, and cutting them with one knife, then cutting a hundred carrots on a block, and seeing which knife is the most blunt,” says Michael Yates.
“The one on the block should be the most blunt. You need to have an absorbent block, but some kitchens still use hard plastics and other materials, which distort the blade. If you distort the blade you have to realign it all the time. At the end of the day you get out your sharpening stone and actually sharpen the knife, rather than just realigning it with the steel. So having a sharp, straight edge is critical, and the better the knife, the better the sharpener you should have. If you’re using a fine edge and a cheap sharpener, you’ll damage your knife.”
Yates points out that unlike knives, the quality of your sharpener is not necessarily reflected in its price—there are some excellent ones at a low price point, and a few expensive ones that aren’t necessarily best for your knife.
Tim Angus, brand manager for distributor Sheldon & Hammond, who distributes Global, Furi, Scanpan and Mundial and Pro Balance knives, agrees: “Of the range of different sharpeners, I prefer to use diamond steel, water stones and combination sharpeners” he says. These days there are many systems on the market which incorporate a range of different sharpening components in one single unit. For example, with the Furi Tech Edge system, they have incorporated Tungsten, Diamond, and polishing stages. When you sharpen a knife, you first have to get it back to an edge—so the first stage is the tungsten steel, which will bring it back to a 20 degree angle. Then you use your diamond, which hones the knife to a cutting point. The third is polishing. How regularly you are using your knives determines how often you should use each stage. You should use the tungsten stage once every 12 months and the diamond stage every three to four months, provided the final polishing stage is used every day. It’s all about maintaining the cutting edge”.
“Another method is waterstones. Global provides a guide that you put on your knife which will maintain the correct sharpening angle—for Global’s case this is 15 degrees. This process takes longer than using a steel or a combination sharpener, however it sharpens the face of the blade which keeps the blade sharper for a longer period of time.”
“Being able to sharpen your knife is just as important as the kind of knife you buy.” Michael Yates, director, Zen Imports.
The preference for waterstones was expressed by everyone R&CA magazine spoke to. “I encourage people to learn how to sharpen with waterstones,” said Leigh Hudson of Chef’s Armoury. “The alternative, diamond plates, are a very aggressive way of sharpening, and put deeper cuts in the blade, where waterstones give a fine, smooth finish.”
“The Japanese waterstone and some diamond steels are good,” says Michael Yates. “Diamond tends to be aggressive and can be difficult on high-end knives. Ceramic is one of the better surfaces, like the Japanese water stone. It depends on the type of knife. High-end Japanese knives have very thin angles. The big issue is getting the correct angle on both sides.
“If you’ve got 15 degrees on one side and 25 degrees on the other, the knife will slice at an angle. So it’s critical setting edges, and it’s difficult to get an exact angle without having a method of pre-setting the angle. There are pull-through sharpeners where the angle is pre-set. But that’s critical for a chef who’s doing a lot of cuts, because if it’s off, it’s not going to work for you.”
Which gets back to the type of knife you buy.
“With the more expensive knives, a lot of research goes into creating them,” says Tim Angus. “If you get a poor steel, for example, the knife won’t last as long. Steel hardness is graded according to its ‘Rockwell’, and you want that Rockwell to sit at 56, plus or minus two points. Too hard, and the knife becomes very brittle. If the steel is too soft, you’ll lose the edge very quickly, so you’ll need to sharpen it on a more regular basis.” Angus points out that Scanpan knives, for example, are all individually tested at 56 Rockwell—if they come out harder than 58 Rockwell or softer that 54, they’re thrown off the production line.
From there, says Angus, it depends on what you cook to determine what knife you need. “If you’re in a meat restaurant cutting large pieces or meat with bone, you’ll want German steel at a 20 degree angle. The reason for this is the German steel tends to be more durable than other forms of steels. If you are in the seafood industry and slicing sashimi you’ll want a finer Japanese blade, with a 15 degree angle.” He also points out flaws in the argument that chefs don’t need a full range of knives, even if some top chefs only use two or three regularly: “It’s like saying if you’re a golfer you only need two or three clubs. It’s all relevant to what the chefs are cooking.”