My recommendation for a romantic Valentine’s Day gift this year is a crazy-sharp Japanese kitchen knife. Yes, I am aware there’s a superstition about knives as presents, which are thought to symbolize a severing of the relationship. But even that has its own folkloric prophylactic: Tape a penny to the blade and ask the recipient to return the coin to you, thereby “buying” the knife. Willies are abated, and cheaply.
Good Japanese knives are tools of profound beauty, often crafted with lustrous wood handles and blades whose shapes and edges have been exquisitely tuned to their purposes. They also make kitchen work more pleasurable and precise—because that’s what the best tools do. (Of course, giving one presumes that the recipient likes to cook. If not, it will come off as a jerky hint, like giving a case of oven cleaner.)
Some chefs say you can get by with one or two good knives—I suppose you can get by with one or two good books, too—but I reject such parsimony. I have a drawer full of the things, more than 25, in fact. Most are Japanese, though there are a few neglected Germans (competent, but not as beautiful), a chunky cleaver bought from a street vender in Bali, Indonesia, a $9 Kiwi knife from Thailand via Amazon (surprisingly good), and a tiny paring number from a small company in Wyoming which looks like it was designed to slit the throat of a field mouse.
One of my treasures has an eight-sided rosewood handle and a thin, slightly curved, carbon-steel blade which progresses from mottled black at the spine to gleaming silver at the cutting edge; it’s long enough to be credibly brandished in a pirate movie. It was made by a third-generation artisan in Japan named Shosui Takeda, who hand-stamps his blades with a cute heart symbol of his father’s design. I have several other Takeda knives of various sizes and marvel every time I use them at their balance, lightness, and ability to make me feel like a kick-ass cook. In fact, it’s these Takeda blades that sparked my true and lasting romance with Japanese cutlery.
For professional advice on what sort of knife to give, I spoke with Elan Wenzel, a Denver chef with sushi experience in Japan and at Sushi Sasa in LoHi. These days, he runs Element Knife Company, currently in a Stanley Marketplace pop-up shop (and at elementknife.com, which has a lot of good knife material, style, and care intel). I asked Wenzel how he talks a novice through the sticker shock of purchasing hand-forged Japanese knives, which can run from $150 for a basic blade to well north of $350—and far more than that if you order a custom job or want something truly special.
The best Japanese knife, Wenzel says, marries modern metallurgy and ancient smithing, producing “an heirloom, something that you’ll pass down. When you have it for life, it’s pennies on the dollar. And you’ll enjoy using it more.”
I second all of those points. Knife makers use techniques that originated with samurai swordsmiths, seeking beautiful balance between rigidity and flexibility in a blade that retains its edge despite heavy use. They alter the molecular structure of the metals through hammering, grinding, quenching, heating, and cooling, timing the entire process by eye. When I talked to Takeda a few years ago, he described, without complaint, a long litany of injuries sustained to his back and knees, ears and eyes. Bladesmithing is fierce, dangerous, and complicated work.
When the glorious Tsukiji fish market was located in downtown Tokyo (and I was visiting), I would go to watch butchers cut fine slices from tuna loins using knives as long as my arm. They possessed the control and smooth moves of Kabuki dancers. There is an aspect of theater in the wielding of a good knife—part of the fun of eating at the best sushi bars—and a properly sized and sharpened knife encourages such skill in the home kitchen, too.
Of course, blades like these demand respect: The edge that makes them so effective can also make for costly lessons. Five stitches in my left forefinger from my Takeda gyuto have made me much more present in my cutting work ever since.
If you’re buying the first really good knife for your beloved’s kitchen, Wenzel recommends a 21-centimeter (just over eight-inch) gyuto (chef’s knife) or santoku (which has a flatter cutting edge and a wider blade). These are multipurpose tools, great for meat, fish, and veggies; gyutos share a shape quite similar to European chef’s knives but often have lighter, thinner blades. Size matters, Wenzel says: Very long blades can be intimidating for home cooks and may overwhelm small cutting boards.
It also makes sense that smaller hands generally require smaller knives—but confidence is a factor, too. If your significant other feels entirely comfortable in the kitchen, consider a blade size that reflects that culinary prowess.
After the basic gyuto, the style I love most is the nakiri, whose long, flat-tipped, symmetrical, rectangular blade is used to cut with a “push forward” motion I favor (instead of the rocking action encouraged when using a curved blade). It’s designed to cut vegetables and, as such, is a particularly good choice for a vegetarian cook. The nakiri blade has a two-sided bevel; the single-bevel version, which I also use because I like its razor precision, is called a usuba.
Yet another good choice for a skilled cook is a petty, which is basically a five- or six-inch paring knife. The petty is for finicky work, often used while holding the food in your hand (peeling garlic or shallots, for example). You can limp along with a cheap version for years, but when I finally bought a proper petty knife, I understood how much handier it is. I also love wielding the short, sturdy, pointy, thicker-bladed honesuki (boning) knife when disassembling chickens and other small, jointed animals.
It’s critical to match a knife to its purpose—and to a cook’s style. A thin-bladed nakiri or santoku can chip with an I-told-you-so vengeance upon contact with bone or fruit stone. A twisting action with, say, a hard Parmesan rind can snap a half-moon chunk out of a thin blade too. These knives are not intended for a caveperson-style cook who likes to hack racks of ribs into submission and pry the lid off a can of beans by jabbing the blade in and working it around the lip.
To ensure a good match, talk with experts like Wenzel rather than buying online. (Although, if you already know what you want to buy, Tokyo-based chuboknives.com carries a huge assortment and ships free to the United States on orders more than $100.) Choices you’ll face include sorting through various stainless steel alloys and high-carbon steels for the blade. You can also buy swirl-patterned Damascus steel blades (like those picture above), which are spectacular, though no more functional. Carbon steel is light and has, to me, a more hand-crafted aesthetic, but it can oxidize quickly and requires careful drying after each use.
There’s also a choice between a double bevel knife and a single bevel. The familiar, European-style double-bevel design means that the cutting edge is shaped to a symmetrical point on two sides and works well even if your wrist is slightly canted to the right or left. Single-bevel design means that one face of the blade is flat while the other slopes to the cutting edge. It requires more discipline and is harder to sharpen, but it makes beautifully precise cuts.
Next, there’s the handle: Many Japanese knives are available with curved, European-style, riveted handles, like a bigger version of the typical handle on a steak knife. However, I have long been sold on the handsome, straight, octagonal Japanese-style handle, which locks into my hand and provides a superb grip.
Finally, there’s the matter of keeping the new knife sharp. Stores like Carbon Knife Co on Larimer Street, which carries a wide range of Japanese knives and accessories, have drop-off sharpening services, but I’ve found that water sharpening stones—essential for hand-crafted knives and sold by both Carbon and Element—are fairly easy and even fun to use. My proposal is this: Buy the stone and promise that if your partner isn’t interested in the meditative practice of water-stone sharpening, you’ll do your bit in the unfolding relationship between cook and crazy-sharp blade.