When it comes to knives and day-to-day prep tools, chefs tend to take things personally. Some collect tools by the hundreds; others take their time putting together a base collection of tried-and-true items that will serve them throughout their careers.
Chef John Cirillo, proprietor of Cirillo’s Culinary Academy in Toronto, says the love of knives starts as soon as chefs enter the industry. “They buy what they are comfortable with and tend to use them throughout their careers. They become part of their repertoire. And chefs aren’t cheap when it comes to buying knives. I’ve seen young guys not making much money who will spend $200 or $300 on one.”
Necessities range from classic chef and utility knives to boning, paring and filleting knives. Prices can range from well under $100 into the thousands if your fancy turns to high-end carbon or Japanese blades.
For some, it may be a particular brand that suits their style, while others will accumulate different brands for specific tasks. At the Academy, Cirillo says he sticks to Michigan-based KitchenAid tools for the most part, but notes premier brands in his books include Victorinox, Henckels, Wusthof and F Dick. “Every chef knife box or bag should have at least six good knives,” he says.
SOMETIMES, IT’S PERSONAL
Executive chef Alex Chen of Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar in Vancouver has gone well beyond that throughout his 20-year career. His collection of approximately 100 knives ranges from $15 paring knives to his latest acquisition, a custom-ordered Japanese knife set he says cost about $5,000. “Every pay cheque I would put aside some money to buy a new knife. I started out with Victorinox, [Wusthof] Trident and Global.” While his ultimate dream has been a set of custom-made Japanese knives, Chen says they don’t always have to be expensive. “They just have to feel really good to use. It’s about the patina, the handle and how they feel in our hand.”
In fact, one of his favourite pieces was a $15 turning knife he used for years until only 20 per cent of the blade was left. “I still use it at home. But when I tried to replace it, Trident no longer made the same knife so I got a knife maker to replicate one, which cost $200. It’s still not the same.”
It’s also about the history. “Every one reminds me of each stage of my career. Some are from my days in culinary school, others working at the Four Seasons. Some are from my travels; others were gifts.”
As he anxiously awaits his newest investment, Chen says his only concern is that they “will be too shiny and pretty to use. I might just look at them for a few years before I touch them.”
Andrew Farrell’s knife collecting got off to a rough start when the chef de cuisine at Halifax’s 2 Doors Down lost his knife bag seven years ago, never to be seen again. Although it wasn’t a large collection, like many chefs, there were items that had a great deal of sentimental value —including his dad’s steel.
On the up side, Farrell says he didn’t have to look far to start again. He was raised in Pictou, N.S., home to the Grohmann knife factory, where everyone in town had “fantastic German steel knives. Some of my first knives were actually Grohmanns, including one of my workhorse eight-inch knives I use for carving. Luckily, I had two at home and have been rebuilding my collection since then. Of all the knives I have, four are from Grohmann.”
Sometimes, he admits, it’s hard to let go of a favourite. Once a handle fell off of a particular knife in a freak accident. “I kept the detached blade and use it as an herb chopper.”
Because the restaurant does a lot of repetitive prep work, Farrell’s “absolute workhorse” tool is a Dexter Russell cleaver he bought in New York for $50. “I use it 90 per cent of the time.”
Like a growing number of chefs today, Farrell is particularly intrigued by Japanese blades, which are renowned for the quality of the steel and sharpness. He has also added a Japanese steel Tadafusa knife to his collection. “Beyond the fact Japanese steel looks cool, it’s got fantastic edge-holding qualities, as long as you maintain it and treat it right.”
He believes chefs need to be careful about their choices since it’s easy to overspend in the heat of the moment. “I’ve seen a lot of chefs dump a lot of money into knife sets and not use the majority of them. You don’t have to buy a lot of knives; but the ones you do buy have to do a good job.”
CHOICE AND CARE
When choosing knives, weight and balance is important, notes Rudi Fischbacher, associate dean, School of Hospitality Recreation and Tourism at Humber College in Toronto. “The ideal is a 50/50 balance between the blade and the handle.”
Knife kit basics include a combination of softer and harder blades, each of which can serve a different purpose. Beyond the basic chef and paring knives, he also recommends a deboning knife and serrated blade. “Having the right blade for the right job is crucial,” Fischbacher says.
With the right care, even the most inexpensive knives can last years, Cirillo says. In addition to regular sharpening, Cirillo stresses the importance of storing knives properly. “You don’t want them in a drawer where the blades touch. I know chefs line metal toolboxes with Styrofoam so the blades won’t touch. Knife bags or magnetic knife holders are also great. A lot of knives come with knife guards so you can slide them in but a lot of chefs don’t use them. Those who care about their knives, however, do.”
Knives should never be cleaned in dishwashers as the harsh chemicals can damage the steel. Knife bags should also be wiped down weekly, Cirillo advises. It’s also good practice to running a knife along a sharpening steel at the beginning and end of its use before storing to remove any debris.
ACCESSORIZING YOUR BASICS
Of course, chefs’ tools go beyond knives. Farrell’s work area must-haves, for example, include tongs, a slotted spoon, fish spatula, a Y-shaped peeler and a skewer for testing fish. “A tong is simply an extension of your hand. They can do anything from getting items out of the oven to plating. It’s one tool I use on the line all the time.”
There’s also growing interest in plating tools, especially on the part of fine-dining establishments. In response, manufacturers are now developing kits for everything from multiple variations on tongs and tweezers to drizzling spoons/sauciers, wedges, combs and brushes.
Tweezers come in various shapes and lengths and have different tensions depending on the application, says Joseph Flaherty, senior vice-president for Mercer Culinary in Chicago. “Caterers, for example, like longer tweezers so they can reach across when plating multiple dishes.”
Fischbacher agrees plating and eye appeal have become huge factors for chefs. He encourages students to invest in plating-tool kits. He sees them as a way to enhance artistic expression on the plate. “It’s like painters with a palette.”
Volume 49, Number 5
Written By Denise Deveau