paring potatoes
Chef Paul Canales demonstrating how to pare potatoes

Weeks before starting my internship at Oliveto, I began researching the knives I would need to be a swashbuckling chef apprentice.

I owned an old set of Wustof knives, but like a lot of home chefs, I had mistreated them. New knives were essential. They needed to be sharp. They needed to be versatile. They needed to feel comfortable in my hand.

My first step was to consult Paul Canales, the executive chef at Oliveto.

“You need four knives,” said Canales. “A 10-inch chef’s knife, a paring knife, a seven-inch utility knife and a semi-stiff boning knife. That will get you started.”

Like many restaurants, Oliveto owns a number of cleavers, cheese knives and other specialty tools shared by all kitchen employees. But chefs and interns are expected to have their own personal knives. Most wouldn’t want it any other way.

Chefs tend to be picky about how their blades are used, sharpened and stored. If all knives were used communally in a kitchen, the skirmishes would be epic. Fights would break out — knife fights.

To examine the options, Canales graciously allowed me to try out the personal knives that he and other Oliveto chefs were using. In one afternoon, I was able to handle and slice food with a few dozen blades, while picking up tips on knife shops and Web sites.

Here are the knives I purchased that week, along with a few others I’ve since added to my collection:

Fujitake 10 1/2 inch chef knife
This knife is a wonder of Japanese forging. It is light, well-balanced, amazingly thin, strong and very, very sharp. It is made with VG-10, a combination of steel, cobalt and other elements. The cobalt helps the steel keep its edge.

fujitake 10.5 in chefs knife

Two of the chefs at Oliveto own Fujitakes, and after I worked with one, I was immediately seduced. I headed straight to Hida Tool in Berkeley and purchased one.

From what I’ve read, Hida is the only U.S. importer of Fujitake ware. At $159, this big chef’s knife is not cheap, but it is amazingly versatile.

Sabatier Canadian Massif 7 1/4 inch slicer
I wanted at least one classic French knife in my collection, and this is the one I chose. These Canadian Massif knifes are made in Thiers, the legendary French forging town that is the reputed home of the guillotine. These knives are made from historic blanks (chunks of steel), and are collector’s items. They were originally sold to the Canadian market, hence the name.

Sabatier Canadian Massif slicer

This is an old school knife — made of carbon steel, not stainless steel. To prevent rusting, it must be kept dry, which makes it a poor choice for home use. But carbon steel is easier to sharpen and keep sharp than stainless steel. That’s why many professional chefs, including Canales, prefer it for everyday restaurant use.

I pull out this knife for cleaning and cutting squid, filleting fish, slicing the skin off of grapefruits and oranges and other tasks. I purchased it for $74.95 at The Best Things, an online shop that offers one of the Web’s best selections of historic French, German and Japanese knives.

Shun 4-inch paring knife
Yikes. This thing is sharp. It also is beautiful, with a black Pakkawood handle capped in stainless steel, and a wavy pattern on the blade known as “Damascus.”

shun paring knife

These knives were designed by Seattle bladesmith Bob Kramer, whose innovations in forging were chronicled last November in a New Yorker profile.

Sur La Table commissioned Kramer to design a special set of Damascus knives, made in Japan under the “Shun” label.

If you have small hands, you might prefer a paring knife with a shorter handle. But the Shun works for me, and I use it daily, mainly for paring onions and garlic. You can find this wicked blade at Sur La Table and various web sites, selling for roughly $65.

Dexter Russell semi-stiff 6-inch boning knife
This U.S. manufacturer of commercial cutlery is known for its boning knives, and you can purchase them with any number of handles and forgings, with a resulting range of prices. I bought the basic model, for $16.50. So far, it has been effective in boning and trimming chicken, fish, pork and other meats.

Dexter Russel boning knife

Victorinox bird’s beak paring knife
A bird’s beak is handy for small, technical jobs, like trimming baby artichokes. Thus I added this to my collection. This knife costs less than $10, and with a basic nylon handle, you can find them for as cheap as $5.

Victorinox birds beak paring knife

Edge Pro 12-inch ceramic honer
If you are serious about knives, you need a sharpening stone, and you need to learn how to use it. Yet if you are doing a lot cutting, a ceramic honer will help keep your knives sharp in between sessions with the stone.

Edgepro ceramic honer

Several chefs at Oliveto swear by this honing wand made by Edge Pro, a company in Hood Hood River, Oregon, because it sharpens without taking as away metal as a sharpening steel. The ceramic honer is especial protective of thin-edged Japanese knives, which can be ruined by use, and misuse, of a sharpening steel.

This honer costs $30. You can find it at Edge Pro’s website.

That’s my small knife kit, such as it is. But as my wife likes to say, I am a “gear head.” So my collection is sure to expand. How about you? Do you have a particular knife, or collection of knives, that you consider to be extraordinary?

The intern reveals his knife collection. What about yours? 1 July,2009Stuart Leavenworth

  • TikiPundit

    Great post with good advice. It’s fantastic that you got to handle so many knives. Thanks for linking to sources for your selections. A couple of those web sites are especially good for other things, too. I studied Japanese joinery and did not know there is such a store in Berkeley.

  • Try as many different knives as you can get your hands on, because one person’s favorite knife is unlikely to be yours. I love the bird’s beak paring knife, I probably use it more than my 7″ Japanese utility knife, which I use much more than my full-on chef’s knife.

  • bethh

    That’s Hood River, Oregon, not just Hood. That’s as funny as calling a town Walnut or Palo around here 🙂 Hood River is about a half-hour or so outside of Portland and has no sales tax!

  • Linda

    What about MAC knives? Have you tried any of those out? Thanks for the links to find the knives.

  • Thanks Beth for the catch on “Hood.” I’ve been to Hood River, so I don’t know why I let that one slip by me. That has since been corrected.

    Linda, I have tried the MAC knives. They are excellent. Several chefs at Oliveto own them. I may one day add one to my collection.

    Brian offers good advice above on the need to try out several different kinds of knives — with different handles, different weights, different forging techniques — before making a big investment.

    You don’t need to spend vast sums for knives. East Bay Restaurant Supply sells Mercer Cutlery. Mercer makes an excellent 7″ santoku that goes for about $35. It is my main tool in our home kitchen.

    So shop around. And watch your fingers.

  • I’m surprised nobody steered you toward Forschener as an apprentice. You dropped a lot of dough on those knives, nice as they are. Forged knives are not necessarily better than stamped, however, certainly for repetetive work.

    Your knives all have cylindrical bolsters (the part of the knife between the blade and the handle). Although some people are not into the cylindrical bolster, try to use it to your advantage. There are many ways to hold a knife of that style, and mixing it up can save your wrists when chopping say 50lbs of onions.

    And not to be too contrarian, but there are many respectable kitchens out there that operate using communal knives without melee on the line.

  • oh, and if you’re interested, I have one or two myself:

  • elise chan

    i was at hida today and am seriously considering the chef’s knife. my old santoku is often dull. thanks so much for the review! it’s quite helpful to know about the 4 essentials, uses and price point. and the source. great job!

  • Cheftian

    That isn’t the Kramer designed paring knife. That is the Classic, which comes in 3 1/2 and 4 inch flavors.

  • Jason

    I recently picked up a F Dick 8 inch chef’s knife(the pro plus series). It’s good Soligen steel from Germany and I was able to buy the knife for around $40 which I think is an incredible value. I have a sharpening stone and sharpen all of my knives religiously. You could buy the best knife in the world, but if you don’t keep it sharp it will be worthless. I’d like to be able to one day afford a bigger (and nicer) collection like yours.


Stuart Leavenworth

I am a veteran newspaper reporter who has transcended to the life of a kitchen slave. In April, I took a leave from The Sacramento Bee, where I work as a columnist and editorial writer, to intern at Oliveto, an Italian restaurant in Oakland. Until at least September, I will be working five days a week at the restaurant, learning basic culinary skills and helping Oliveto prepare its nightly dishes. What will happen at the end of my sabbatical? Who knows? At the very least, I’ll be a far better chef than when I started. I’ve been a dedicated home cook for more than 20 years, largely because of the inspiration of my wife, Micaela Massimino. Mickie and I have been fortunate enough to travel extensively in Italy, France, the Deep South, New Mexico, Vietnam and Japan, and we enjoy cooking food from all of those places. I also have some experience in writing about food — particularly the environmental consequences of food production. In the 1990s, I covered the rise of industrial hog farming in North Carolina, while working at the Raleigh News & Observer. Since moving back to California in 1999 and joining The Bee, I’ve specialized in coverage of water issues and threats to the state’s fisheries. When I am not cooking, eating or writing, I like to take long rides on my various bicycles, which helps build an appetite for more cooking, eating and writing.

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