Thursday, June 19, 2014

Chef's Tool Kit III: The Chef's Knife

The Chef’s Knife

The Chef’s Knife is the all-around mack daddy of the cook’s knife kit, designed to perform all tasks asked of it. Originally it was meant to slice and disjoint big cuts of beef, but over the years it’s evolved into more of an all-purpose blade, or what the knife nerds call “general utility” It can be used for mincing, dicing, julienne work, slicing, chopping, and disjointing; you can even turn it sideways and crush garlic, ginger, or spices with it. It is not a specialty tool, but one that is designed to perform reasonably well at many different tasks. 

Usually the blade length ranges between 6 and 14-inches in length, with 8-inches being the most common. The width is normally 1½-inches, but it can be wider. With Western knives there are two shapes of blades. The German blade is deeply curved along its length, from bolster to tip, while the French blade is straighter along its length, curving towards the tip. The German blade is made more for a rocking style of cut, while the French blade is used more for a slicing and chopping style of cut. It’s all a matter of preference, depending on how the user cuts with their blade. A typical Western chef’s knife is sharpened to a 20 to 22° edge, while a professional bladesmith will fine tune that down to 18° or even 15°, if he or she thinks the steel can handle that angle; it takes a harder steel to hold a finer edge. Most Western chef knives are made of steel alloys with a Rockwell Hardness scale of 58 to 60 HRC, while a Japanese chef’s knife, known as a gyuto (which literally means “beef knife”) are typically more in the 60 to 62 HRC range. The Japanese chef’s knife has gotten more popular with chefs lately, and the price of the gyuto has skyrocketed.

The blade of a chef’s knife forms a wide elongated triangle tapering to what’s called a “center tip” point. The center tip means that both the back of the knife and the blade are gently sloped until they meet in a sharp point at the tip; the blade slopes from top to edge, and from front to back. The blade should extend all the way through to the end of the handle; this is called the tang. A full tang provides a stronger knife with a better balance to the blade, which makes it easier to use over a long period of time. The handle needs to be made of a dense, durable, waterproof material, and the handle needs to be shaped to comfortably fit your hand. If the handle is made from two pieces of wood or some other material (called “scales”), it needs to be drilled all the way through the tang, and securely connected with metal posts; these posts resemble rivets.

Lots of chefs hold their blades by gripping the sides of the blade near the handle. The thumb goes on the left side, just in front of the finger guard, and the index and middle finger are on the opposite side, with the index finger extending down near the end of the blade, where the bolster starts, and the middle finger tucked behind the finger guard and right by the bolster. You get better control of the blade that way, especially if it’s a longer blade. Longer blades can be harder to control precisely, but will cut faster, and process larger items. When you only grip the handle of a longer blade, the blade can rotate on the vertical axis easier, which isn’t very safe. Shorter blades are easier to control from the handle, and enable more precise cuts, but can take longer to get the job done during prepwork.

my Henckel, with knife guard

My current chef’s knife is a Henckel Twin 4-Star 10” Chef’s that I’ve had for decades (currently $120 online). Luckily, I recently had Travis Weige sharpen it to a 15° edge; it is razor-sharp and a serious kitchen tool to be reckoned with. Contrary to what every older relative and friend with dull knives in their kitchen drawer ever told you, a dull knife is MUCH more likely to cause an accident. Anyone that cuts themselves with a sharp knife did so because they have developed bad, dangerous knife habits from using a worthless dull knife. I used to diss my Henckel 10-incher, but now I really like it again, and it’s because I got it sharpened. Lesson learned, and one to pass on. Travis sharpens knives by the way….

A quick note about knife guards. ALL knives should be slotted in a knife guard when they're being transported or stored. A knife guard, sometimes called a blade or edge guard, is a slotted plastic sheath that comes in varying lengths and widths, to accommodate the size of the blade it is protecting. Compressive tension holds the guard on the blade, and some are lined inside with a thin felt coating which helps prevent slippage. Every knife company makes them, and they can cost more than you’d expect for a piece of plastic. I use a couple of cost-friendly brands made by Ergo Chef and Mundial. 

a Travis Weige custom chef's knife (photo by Travis)

But I’m all moist and tweaking from waiting on my Weige 11-inch custom chef’s knife that I commissioned Travis to build for me earlier this spring ($375, and a complete bargain considering the cost of custom chef’s knives out there). It will have a lacewood handle that is custom-formed to my grip and my hand measurements, bitchin’ cool handle posts made by Sally Martin, and the blade will be forged from 440c steel alloy. I’ve got several months to wait still, but I know I will be very proud to own it, and very, very happy to use it.  Go to Travis’ website, look at the gallery, and you’ll get a good idea of what my new chef’s knife will look like, and why I’m all worked up about getting it:

The chef’s knife ought to hold a special place in the working chef or serious foodie’s knife kit. It’s the one blade that can do it all, and the one blade that you really shouldn’t skimp on.  

For a good website link on parts of the knife, see this:     

For my previous Austin Chronicle article on my custom chef knife to-be, local Austin-based custom knife genius, Travis Weige, and a lot of background info on custom kitchen knives, go here:

Mick Vann © 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Chef's Tool Kit Part 2: The Cleaver Chronicles

Chef’s Kit II: The Cleaver Chronicles

The heavy cleaver is the workhorse of the chef’s knife kit, handling chores not meant for a sharp blade; think of it as the hatchet of the knife kit. It relies on the momentum and weight of the blade to perform tasks like splitting joints or cutting through thin or soft bones, cartilage, and sinew (bone saws are used for cutting thick bones). It can be used for carcass work or dispatching fish heads. It’s great for prepping really dense items like acorn squash, or spatchcocking birds. The weight of the cleaver is ideal for smashing garlic or ginger with the side of the blade, pounding-out meats for milanesa or flattening portions for stuffing, or even flipping upside-down to use the back of the blade for tenderizing tough cuts of meat.  A heavy cleaver has a blade angle of about 25° and is usually made from softer steel; hard steel could fracture hitting dense items with such force. The exception is the light Asian-style cleaver, which is used more like a chef’s knife.

Zhen 7-inch Light Vegetable Cleaver

I have used a lightweight Chinese-style vegetable cleaver for many, many years, finding it especially useful during prep. It’s perfect for sliding along the cutting board and scooping up whatever you just sliced. It’s ideal for smashing garlic and ginger AND mincing it up. It juliennes vegetables better than any other blade, and there’s no better tool for mincing meats. I love the Zhen 7-inch VG-10 Light Vegetable Cleaver that I ordered from It’s made from VG-10 alloy and is easy to keep super sharp. The balance is perfect in the hand, especially if you fudge a little and hold the index and middle finger on the side of the blade when slicing, like I do. The handle coating is made from non-slip TPR (thermoplastic rubber) and the shape fits my hand nicely. It’s made in Taiwan from 3 layers of forged Japanese steel, with a VG10 stainless alloy core, and has an HRC hardness rating of 60-62.  This has ended up being one of the favorite knives in my kit, and at $55, worth the price. A comparable Wusthoff or Henckel would be $75, a similar Global is about $160, and a comparable Shun blade would set you back $230.


Update 7-inch Heavy

My Update International 7-inch Heavy Bone and Meat Cleaver is made for dispatching big chunks of meat, splitting heavy joints, and any task related to a bone. This baby is thick-bladed and heavy weight, and it has a full, thick tang and a massive handle. This cleaver is not meant for delicate detail work of any kind. This tool is indestructible, and at a retail price of $14.25, it seems impossible that it could be sold that cheaply. To put the price into perspective, the Wusthoff version is $100, while the Henckel Standard is $50, the Henckel 4-Star is $120. For a Global, pay $170, and a Shun will run you $220.


Ayutthaya Cleaver 

My other cleaver is a work of handmade art, constructed by knife craftsmen in the ancient Thai city of Ayutthaya, pounded-out by hand (and mechanical press, if I had to guess) from a sheet of glowing hot steel. The company has made this 12-inch cleaver exactly this same way for the last 70 years. It has a hardwood handle, a full tang, and pounded-metal handle posts. The 18-ounce blade is meant for any chore, including harvesting sugar cane stalks, splitting firewood and chopping kindling, or splitting a pig carcass down the middle. Trapped somewhere by rampaging zombies and need to split some skulls? Grab this thing. It is available from and is well worth the $26 price tag (although had I bought this in Thailand it would have been more like $5 US). This is a down-and-dirty chef’s tool that can take on anything.

Mick Vann ©

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Chef's Tool Kit, Part 1

Chef’s Kit, Part I:

This article on knives for a chef’s kit is the first in my series of articles on tools for the working chef (or the dedicated home chef). In putting together my personal kit, I invested a lot of time in researching what was the best option for each blade or tool category, based on the quality of the materials, the purchase price, and reviews from other users, especially users that are also chefs. I also have a brain crammed full of decades of commercial and home kitchen experience and personal knowledge to draw from.


1. There are three approaches to outfitting your kitchen with knives. One approach, and the approach that any street cook worth their weight in Thailand takes, is to invest a pittance in a set of Kiwi brand knives; the same company makes knives and kitchen tools under the name Kom Kom.  They are made in Thailand from strip stainless steel and have riveted hardwood or plastic handles with a tang going down half of the handle. The blades are soft but you can get a razor sharp edge on them in a heartbeat, with just a few strokes from a steel. I have used them for decades, often as my go-to knives in the trenches of commercial kitchens, where knives are often "borrowed" and shamefully abused by fellow kitchen staff. They are so inexpensive that you can almost consider them disposable, but take care of them and they will last many years.

When I first started buying them back in the early 80’s you could get a 6½-inch santoku for about 4 dollars, and they are still very inexpensive today. I purchased this 4-knife set from for $22.50, which includes the heavier weight 7-inch santoku shaped blade (far right), the 6½-inch rectangular nagiri-shaped blade “chopping knife”, the lighter weight 6½-inch santoku-shaped blade, and the 4-inch all-purpose “Java” chopping knife (far left).

For an average of a little over 5 bucks per knife, this set cannot be beat, and it covers most work stations in a commercial kitchen. I have even filleted fish with the thinner, more flexible 6½-inch santoku blade (although you’ll do much better with a proper flexible fillet knife). Kiwi knives are available online from, from, and They are available in Austin from MT Supermarket, in Chinatown Center, at the intersection of Kramer Ln. and N. Lamar Blvd., although the santoku models get snapped-up off the shelves quickly and it can take time for MT to get them back in stock.

Another approach is to have all of the specialty blades, developed over centuries for specific tasks, in an assortment of lengths and shapes, made from quality metal alloys, all at a much higher price than the first option. The difference in a first category knife and the French, German, or Asian-made second category knife doesn't even compare. Heft, weight, balance, workmanship, materials, and quality are all far superior with the second category. One single second category knife can cost many times what that set of four first category knives cost. However, BOTH the cheap and the more expensive knives will perform the task at hand and are functional. Some people are tool junkies while others are bottom-line pragmatists. The old adage, “you get what you pay for” definitely holds true in this case. More on that second approach next time.

Mick Vann ©