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A cut above in the kitchen

Sales of quality cutlery are up. One reason is that more men are cooking.

If, as chef Sascha Lyon says, knives are one of the cool toys of his profession, then plenty of amateurs are aiming to play with the pros.

"The choices for a home cook have blossomed," says Laurence Segal, who opened a shop in September in Santa Monica, Calif., where he makes knives by hand and sharpens blades, as well as selling other brands.

"One thing driving the knife market is that people have much more sensitive palates than they used to," Segal says. Discriminating eaters can - or say they can - distinguish between food that's cut or torn with a dull knife and food that's properly cut.

A second driver is men. More of them are cooking and want the tools to do it, he says.

"I'd agree with that. Men are probably our most prominent buyer of cutlery. And that's not true with our other products," says Susanna Linse, a spokeswoman for Sur La Table. "Men love their cutlery."

A $20 knife with a plastic handle will work just fine, at least for a time. But a $200 knife that's well cared for can be passed on to grandchildren. And if a $200 knife still seems mundane, custom-made knives designed to fit the hand can cost thousands of dollars.

Well-chosen culinary knives - rather than whatever a couple happened to get for a wedding gift - have risen in popularity with the boom in TV food shows, where chefs can be seen using all sorts of blades, Linse says. And Sur La Table's knife-skills classes are among the company's most popular.

In mid- to top-range knives, one choice a cook makes is between Asian-style knives, which generally have thinner blades and are lighter, and more robust European-style knives, which make cutting chicken easier.

Over the last eight years, Linse says, interest in Asian knives has grown so much that at one point sales of santoku blades - the top edge curves down toward the tip - surpassed the traditional European shape. Now, they're about even, she says.

John Pitblado, the "knife geek" at Surfas Restaurant Supply & Gourmet Food in Culver City, Calif., agrees: "Our customers are really going back to the traditional-style knife. Nothing beats a good Western chef's knife."

But Japanese knives, with the romance of a history dating to the samurai, "are here to stay," Linse says. Among the popular brands are Shun, with its distinctive oval handle, and the all-steel Global. The Global knife is in the Museum of Modern Art design collection, and it's "the sexiest look of all of our knives," Pitblado says. The Global santoku costs $120.

Surfas also carries the Masahiro brand, which has an "absurdly" sharp edge. "It floats through squash. And it also will float through a finger," Pitblado says.

Of the European style, popular brands include Wüsthof and Henckels. Surfas sells knives from Messermeister; the 10-inch chef's knife costs $144.

Segal, the Santa Monica knife-maker, sells his custom 8- or 10-inch chef's knife for about $300. Rhino Custom Knives began 15 years ago and moved to Santa Monica at his wife's suggestion. "She said, 'Women would be much more interested in getting their knives sharpened if they didn't have to meet a strange man in his garage,' " Segal says.

Among his custom offerings is the 6.5-inch Rhino Chop. It has holes along the blade and in a butterfly shape near the handle. The former help keep food from sticking to the blade, the latter enable the cook to get a better grip, Segal says.

Most knives sold today have stainless steel blades, but some cooks prefer old-fashioned carbon steel knives, which can have a sharper edge but require more care. They can rust and will develop a patina familiar to anyone using grandmother's knives.

No matter how good a knife is, it won't cut well or last unless it is well-maintained.

Cooks can learn to sharpen their knives on a stone. Or, take them to a professional at least once a year.

Segal says using a sharpening steel can double the time a knife stays sharp. Each time a knife is used, the cook can hone the blade by stroking it along the steel at a 20-degree angle.

Knives should be used only on cutting boards, not on granite or glass; and they should not be washed in the dishwasher, Pitblado says.