This is primarily intended for beginners intending to make a career out of cooking in kitchens. Which is why it’s actually quite long but I think somehow I actually hope that the target audience would actually read this shit carefully and make up their own minds if the BS I’m throwing is a curve ball or if it’s good advice. Pinch of salt please.

I have 2 apprentices at work. One is a little unfocused but earnest at the same time whilst the other has a confidence verging on arrogance but is easily the more talented of the two. The earnest kid bought a 210mm MCUSTA Gyuto made of 8A stainless steel from Chef’s Armoury, a local store here in Sydney. I actually kinda like the handle shape and for the price, I reckon it’s actually pretty good. It’s just that there’s a tendency for beginners to focus on getting the cool, awesome knife rather than recognizing that they have to learn how to maintain it as well. For my money, I would’ve saved maybe $20-30 from that knife and got something else and put that saved money to a stone and I probably would be better off for it.

When the other apprentice asked me about getting a “mid range, up to $200” knife that won’t totally suck because it’s for the long haul, my reply was to spend a portion of that on a maintenance kit and the rest on the knife. It’s too easy to gloss over the simple fact that maintenance is actually a lot more important than “good” knives.

After spending quite a bit of time in kitchens, particularly in my current one, I’ve realized that past $4-500, it’s pure vanity territory. However, even $2-400 knives are only that much better than $100 knives and many times, that’s also totally subjective. And further on, even $100 knives are only that much better than $50 knives. The rate of diminishing returns on money spent is huge. I have another chef on my section who’s a part timer with a set of “crap” knives. With frequent steeling however, the work accomplished is still far superior to the apprentices. It’s not just the tools but how well you know them and your skill with them.

On the one hand, you can do what that part timer does, get a cheapish knife and constantly use a steel. However, you need to learn how to use a decent steel effectively and that not all steels are the same at all. This is arguably the most inexpensive approach but also far from ideal. People tend to think of steels as being all the same but in reality, there are rough grit and fine grit hones and smooth hones made out of various materials with different purposes. For most people, they just use a rough hone and hack away at their knife in the hope that it will do it’s thing. More often than not, you just get a heapload of scratches all over (not just a cosmetic loss) and a rough, bitey edge that will probably wedge hard vegetables and not cut cleanly through onions, making you cry like a bitch.

I think the learning curve on sharpening stones is steep at the the start but easier once you get up there. It’s a lot easier to understand how to use a rough, sub 500 grit stone for grinding bevels and fixing chips and also using 10,000 grit finishers once you’ve learned to use a 1000 grit basic effectively. With stones, you can better maintain your knife overall and the cost isn’t that much more than a good hone. Plus, hones only work best on softer steels, which is a compromise that you’ll often see in German knives; poorer edge sharpness and retention for ease of resharpening. I just think it’s madness to keep maintaining a knife when you should spend more time cutting with it.

Thusly, I recommended getting a knife around $100 and a maintenance set for maybe $80 or so. Sounds like a budget ass compromise but spending more money is silly. What beginners need is time spent learning to sharpen and learning to maintain it. Also, trying out different knives made of different steels and trying to maintain each and every one is highly educational. You’ll get to experience the wonders of trying to get wire edges off a Global.

For a sharpening set, you will need:

  1. A basic 1000-2000 grit stone or thereabouts. This is what your knife will/should see the most of. You only need lower grits if you need to put an initial bevel or if you have a lot of chips or damage. A finer grit isn’t essential for a beginner because it’s just a more polished edge but also one that’s harder to determine if or when it’s sharp for a beginner. You can opt for a combination stone as well. These are two stones stuck together with a lower and a finer grit. They’re cheaper because they don’t last as long but they are 2 in 1. Most good 1k grit stones and combo stones cost about $50. Many excellent ones are that price too.
    • King
    • Bester
    • Shapton
    • Naniwa
  2. Something to maintain the stone. There’s stone fixers for $20-30 and there’s sandpaper superglued onto flat pieces of wood. The fixer will last a while. The sandpaper much less so. You need to keep the stone flat. Maintaining the sharpening stone is the next most neglected thing after maintaining a knife. Some guys use the kitchen floor which I don’t recommend.
  3. Newspaper. To clean up the final edge and strop the knife on, cheap newspaper is amazing.

All up, don’t bother spending more than $80 on the two things I mentioned. They’re the only essentials. The bare essentials. Well, you also need lots of water and a tea towel or non slip mat and a counter/table and a sink. Hell even just the $50 combo or 1k single is enough.

For the knife, there is no debate. You need a chef’s knife or gyuto (same thing) that is a minimum of 210mm. Anything else is less functional and not that versatile or requires a more specific skillset. A 210mm gyuto is the basis to start learning knifeskills in general. If you can afford more, you’re better off getting a cheaper 240mm rather than a more pricey 210mm one but your mileage may vary. Here’s my pick:

  1. Fujiwara FKM
  2. Tojiro DP
  3. MAC Superior
  4. JCK Kagayaki
  5. Suisin Inox Western
  6. Togiharu Molybdenum

I’ve really just recommended stainless steel knives here in a price ranging from $80-130 depending on length that are easily available online. For all intents and purposes, they’re all similar entry level knives that are relatively easy to maintain and sharpen but will take and hold good, sharp edges. To pick one from the lot, it’s just choosing the one you like the look of the most and the one you can afford rather than worrying about performance. They’re very similar in terms of size, weight, steel etc. My own pick would be the Suisin Inox Western because it has a brown handle and I know their fit and finish is top notch but the Fujiwara is excellent despite it being the cheapest.

I also had my housemate who just started working in kitchens ask me about a knife. She came with the idea that a big, fat and heavy German knife is easier to use. I once had that idea and got myself Global GF-33, which is drop forged and really, it’s more like a western deba than a chef’s knife. At the time, I thought the same way, that a thick, heavy, strong knife would be best. It’s super fat and thick and a PITA to sharpen. I just can’t get it to have an edge that will last without me torturing myself and at the end of the day, it’s not because I’m that bad of a sharpener but because the geometry and profile of the knife also contributes a lot to how it cuts and I really feel it’s meant to be a yo-deba for filleting fish or butchering meat rather than cutting julienne veg.

You don’t want a big, fat and heavy knife. A lotta people think that the weight of the knife does the work for you. Straight BS because you still have to lift the knife and if you’re doing it for long hours, that just adds to the fatigue in the long run and is probably hella bad for you. Rather than depending on a soft, heavy, blunt blade that needs constant steeling, I would much rather recommend a slightly harder, thinner blade that can take a keen edge and keep it for a while. Feel free to brisk it up with a steel if you want.

If you somehow have got cash to burn, you should still get the same knives I listed because anything more pricey than those are either not worth the money or they need more patience or experience with sharpening to get good results. Instead, you’re better off getting the following:

  1. Higher grit stone, 2-4k for finer edge polishing
  2. Stone Holder, to keep it in place and really just prop it up higher
  3. Sharpening toys like an angle cube or magnifier
  4. A better stone fixer like an Atoma 140 or DMT XXC or a diamond plate type one

Spend time watching some youtube videos online about knife sharpening and using steels or stropping. I recommend the ones from JKI and CKTG to start with.

http://www.youtube.com/user/JKnifeImports

http://www.youtube.com/user/Chefknivestogo

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