Tuesday, July 05, 2005



Making the Cut

July 1, 2005; Page W9C

Samurai warriors, according to legend, believed their swords had souls. Chefs today speak with similar reverence about their kitchen knives, and lately a lot of praise has been directed toward something called the santoku -- a long and lightweight Japanese cleaver with a curved top and straight cutting edge.

The knives have been available in the U.S. for more than a decade, but only recently have they really started to take off. Knifemakers give some credit to chef Rachael Ray, who praised the knives' handling and sharpness on the Food Network two years ago. Knifemaker Wusthof's santoku sales have increased tenfold from three years earlier, replacing the chef's knife as its best-seller and now make up 10% of the company's total revenue.

[nowides] FINAL CUT

While houseware sales nationwide are flat, cutlery sales rose 5% last year from the year before thanks in part to a fourfold increase in the number of santokus sold, according to the marketing-information company NPD Group. Ms. Ray has her own line of santoku knives now, manufactured by Australian knifemaker Furitechnics.

We ordered five santokus and took them to Manhattan's Chez Josephine, to see how two chefs trained in classical French cuisine, John Lichtenberger and Marvin James, would take to them. And after chopping our way through 20 tomatoes, 10 green peppers, six onions and three sea-trout filets, we agreed that a good santoku must be sharp, balanced and comfortable to grip.

Chopping in Balance

We started with a model made by Global, which has been selling santokus in the U.S. since 1989. Its Santoku Asian Chef's Knife, $86 from Metrokitchen, was the sexiest-looking knife on the table with sleek, seamless steel from grip to tip, and its scalpel-like edge cut through tomato like crepe paper. But we found the stainless-steel handle too slippery. The Henckels Four-Star Santoku, $80 from Williams-Sonoma, was heavier and nicely balanced, but its 7-inch blade dragged through the tomato and couldn't cut through the fish's skin in a single swipe.

Kyocera's $124 Ceramic Chef Knife was easily the conversation-starter, its milky-white ceramic blade garnering curious looks from the kitchen staff and giddy grins from the chefs. Mr. Lichtenberger deemed the narrow blade "ideal" for cutting tuna and vegetables, and he said he worried he would drop and shatter it. Sure enough, when we dropped ours on purpose on a tile floor, the tip shattered. (It took three tries.) Kyocera says it will reshape and sharpen shattered knives at no cost.

Getting a Grip

The $90 Wusthof-Trident Classic Santoku (we ordered the 7-inch blade with the dimpled edge) sliced and diced through our vegetables in seconds. It was surprisingly lightweight, given its sturdy appearance, and its composite handle offered a well-fitting grip. It wins Best Value.

But even better was KAI's Kershaw Shun Classic Santoku, which cost us $120 at Chef's Resource. It has a D-shaped handle that fits snugly in the right palm, offering better control than the others. (Southpaws can request the left-handed model.) The blade slices smoothly through both vegetables and fish, and the teeth-shaped dimples along the edges softened friction. It was an aesthetic favorite as well: The blade surface has what looks almost like a woodgrain pattern, the result of fusing multiple layers of steel. "This feels like a samurai sword," Mr. Lichtenberger said, although he wasn't quite ready to trade in his chef's knife. "If I were at a friend's house for dinner and saw this, I'd be trying to sneak it home." We agreed, and it's our Best Overall.

* * *

Kershaw Shun Classic Santoku with Scalloped Blade, $119.95

[Kai, Best Overall]

Quality: Best Overall. This 6.5-inch blade has an attractive wavy pattern and scalloped dimples that keep food from sticking. Easy to grip, it's a smooth slicer.

Shipping Cost/Time: Free standard shipping promised in five days. Ours arrived in four.

Return Policy: Contact within 30 days for refund if unused; you pay shipping. If damaged, call within seven days for exchange; site pays shipping.

Phone/Web Experience: It was tough to locate the return policy (scroll under "About Us" tab). Site has wide variety of products -- from $5.95 knife safe to $19.95 magnetic knife holder.

Comment: Site touted its "instant service," a feature where shoppers could chat online in real time with customer-service agents. Just make sure you do so during business hours on the West Coast.

* * *

Professional Cutlery Direct
Wusthof-Trident Classic Santoku, $89.99

[Professional Cutlery Direct, Best Value]

Quality: Best Value. Blade's slightly rounded belly let us use a quick, rocking motion while chopping. Triple rivets on the handle show off the tang, which chefs often consider a sign of durability.

Shipping Cost/Time: We paid $8.95 for ground shipping. Our knife arrived in three days.

Return Policy: 60 days for refund, store credit or exchange. You pay the shipping and package must be sent prepaid and insured.

Phone/Web Experience: Site offers 400 knives. Also has a gift registry and illustrated primers on how to grip a knife while chopping, dicing, and even deboning chicken.

Comment: Wusthof also makes a santoku in its Grand Prix II line, which has molded (read: ergonomic) handles for about the same price.

* * *

Zwilling J.A. Henckels
Four-Star Santoku Knife, $79.95

[Zwilling J.A. Henckels]

Quality: Heavier than the rest, its polypropylene handle was comfortable. But the blade, even with a hollow edge to reduce friction, couldn't cut cleanly through a tomato.

Shipping Cost/Time: Standard shipping was $13.50. Site says most orders are delivered within five days; ours took six (due to ordering at end of the day).

Return Policy: With receipt, you can get a refund, exchange or credit. Without receipt, they offer only store credit.

Phone/Web Experience: This site suits even novice online shoppers. We tracked our order easily by entering our order number and our Zip code.

Comment: When we told Henckels about our difficulty cutting the tomato, a spokeswoman suggested using the company's serrated tomato knife instead.

* * *

Santoku Asian Chef's Knife, $85.95


Quality: "You'd expect this one to end up at MoMA," a chef said of this sleek knife. But its thin heel (where the blade meets the handle) rubbed against his index finger.

Shipping Cost/Time: All orders over $39 ship free; otherwise, you pay $4.95; orders usually arrive within five days; ours came the next day.

Return Policy: Refund or exchange within 30 days if unused. You pay shipping, unless it arrives damaged.

Phone/Web Experience: Site offers six brands of knives, including Wusthof and Henckels. It also offers Global santokus in two other blade lengths.

Comment: Regarding the knife heel that rubbed our chef the wrong way: A Global spokesman says the heel is typical of narrow-bladed Japanese knives.

* * *

Ceramic Chef Knife, $123.50


Quality: We liked this ceramic knife's lightness but one of our chefs felt "like I'm holding a plastic knife." Kyocera says they're almost as hard as diamonds.

Shipping Cost/Time: Free shipping on orders over $99; or else, UPS priority mail is $8.99. Projected delivery of 3-4 days; it took four.

Return Policy: Return unopened within 7 days for refund. If opened, you pay 10% restocking fee plus shipping.

Phone/Web Experience: Site is easy to search. "Cooking Tips" section has a primer on dicing -- learn to tell a brunoise from a battonet.

Comment: Came with a five-year manufacturer's warranty and free lifetime knife sharpening. Company suggests you use a wooden cutting board.


Anonymous Madison said...

I too got this Chef's Knife set from Metro Kitchen...

5:29 AM  

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