Is buying an expensive knife worth the investment?

What does a knife mean to a chef? Akira Shinkai tugs up a shirtsleeve, grips his own muscular forearm. Tight, so the veins bulge.

"It is part of the arm," he says.

Behind him, Takeshi Kojima walks over from the whetstone, where he has been loudly sharpening his blade. He pulls out his own knife, a Yanagiba with a simple wooden handle, not as beautiful as the rows and rows of blades on display but clearly much used and well-cared-for. A chef's knife.

"Without this, I cannot work. Skill is the most important. But a well maintained knife is equal," he says.

He's worked with the knife for 10 years, in his kitchen at South Yarra sashimi joint Hibari, and carefully sharpens it each day. No one else is allowed to touch it. Ever.

Precision blades

The pair now run Tanto, a boutique Japanese knife salon in Melbourne's CBD. They havesold about 400 Suisin knives so far, half of them to commercial chefs. They are made in from Sakai, Osaka, the heart of Japan's sword industry, where they have been making blades for samurai since the 14th century.

There are three core knives in a sashimi chef's arsenal: a long, thin Yanagiba for slicing fish, a shorter Kiritsuke with a hard end for vegetables, and a Usuba, a cleaver with a delicate edge.

In fact, the edge and sharpness of the knives are what set them apart from European knives. Thinner, sharper edges allow for much better precision work – think the tiny curls of white radish underneath sashimi.

Double edged sword

The knives are made of two pieces of steel sandwiched together. The centre of the blade is made of high-carbon steel, very sharp, but very fragile. A stronger steel is pressed about it to give it strength, and then sanded down by hand, exposing the carbon-steel edge.


The two layers are clearly visible on the front; on the back the knife is concave, allowing it to be sharpened by an automated whetstone. That technology comes from samurai swords, Mr Shinkai says.

A master knife-maker – a shokunin - will take about three months to make each blade by hand. The handles are a combination of chestnut and Australian buffalo horn, which is exported from Australia to Japan and inserted into the handle. The horn is chosen, explains Mr Shinkai, because of its unique water-resistant properties.

Ides of knives

Ex-Attica chef Peter Gunn's Collingwood fine-diner Ides is a mecca for young chefs and apprentices, who want to be part of the fast, hard-graft world of a top kitchen. But not everyone can keep up; Gunn admits he has a pretty high churn-rate.

So when they arrive, Gunn often gives them the same advice: go buy yourself a set of Victorinox knives. The venerable Swiss brand's knives are good quality and very affordable. Good enough for commercial cookery, and not so expensive they become a huge waste of money if you flunk out.

For the home cook, he recommends Global, a Japanese brand making affordable, light-weight and super-sharp knives.

"When I first started cooking, the first knives I purchased were Global. And they are sharp," he told Executive Style.

"The first time I pulled it out of the packet I cut myself. So I've always liked them for their consistency and durability. What I tell people when they ask me to buy I knife, I always point them in the direction of global."

Once one of his trainee chefs gets good, though, they might consider their boss's upgrade pick: a Misono, a Japanese brand that's been hand-forging knives for 800 years. They are, he says, something else. "All my other chefs knives have since ended up in the chef's drawer".

Tips for buying a good knife

Gunn's key piece of advice is this: you don't need more than two knives, a 21cm chef's knife and a 14cm petty knife. With those two you can do pretty much everything.

Buy less knives so you can buy better knives.

Work out what level of chef you are. Be honest; not everyone is a masterchef.

Occasional cook: consider a Victorinox. These knives have a reputation for being fantastic value-for-money, while also earning respect from commercial cooks. The plastic handles will eventually fall apart - but by that stage you're probably ready to upgrade.

Home cook: consider a Global. More pricey, but a significant step up in quality from the 'Inox. Your money gets you better materials, better balance, and a unique narrow blade that allows a sharper edge and finer knife-work.

The commercial cook: honestly, if you're a commercial cook, you're not reading this looking for advice. You know what you want.

More-money-than-sense cook: "People can buy whatever they want – everyone's got a?credit card," says Gunn. Buy a Misono so you can feel like Dan Hunter (Brae's head chef, who also uses them). Or pick up a Suisin so you can feel like a samurai.

The only question is: can you bear to use your expensive new purchase to chop up those carrots you just bought from Woolies?