Book Review

Some time ago I took a course in Knife skills at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America), these are offered to enthusiasts and the one day (6 hour) courses do include lunch. Of course you may cook it yourself.
The knife skills course included this book The Professional Chef's Knife Kit (this book seems to have been replaced with In the Hands of a Chef which I have not seen, yet) and recently I found this at the Barnes and Noble across the street Knife Skills Illustrated.

In addition Knife Skills by Charlie Trotter and others and Mastering Knife Skills by Norman Weinstein are two other texts on the subject. I've not seen these and won't recommend either for that reason, but will say that I have taken a cooking course from Norman Weinstein (Institute of Culinary Education), as has my wife, and was most impressed.

Up front let me say I prefer the CIA book. It goes far deeper into the special cuts a professional or serious amateur needs and it also uses photographs not drawings. On the other hand I'm right handed, if you are left handed then perhaps Knife Skills Illustrated is the book for you as it shows full techniques for both righties and those of the sinister bent, one following the other. For the record let me state I've been married twice, both times to left-handed red-heads, take it from me, skip the first one, although if she had been able to cook perhaps I wouldn't have gotten interested in cooking. Another point for Knife Skills Illustrated is that it assumes you know nothing and starts at the beginning. The CIA book does assume some knowledge and as said goes further into the professional realm. I want that, you may not. Or you could use the Darcie method and get both and compare, as she did with food processors.

Another point toward The Professional Chef's Knife Kit is that it does go into other tools besides knives. The mandoline is an excelent example.

Both books make the point you only need two knives, the others can be very useful, but aren't essential. The first and most important is is the Chef's Knife, in the US this is commonly the 8 or 10 inch size, in Europe it would seem to be the 10" to 14" range. The second is a paring knife. The third essential item is the steel.

Hertzman (Knife Skills), who learned to cook with Martin Yan, started cooking with a cleaver and does make the point that the Chef's Knife is not the only knife in the drawer. He does include a chart for evaluating knives, but doesn't mention in the chart itself that those are his personal evaluations. In the text he does make it clear that you must make your own evaluations. As example I do a lot of boning and fabrication, thus I would put a boning knife in the 'most useful' category, right next to my ex-mother-in-law's cleaver (don't ask).

A boning knife, forged stainless carbon with bolster. It is about as sharp as a straight razor.

The lower of the two above is a stamped boning knife, the upper one I use for slicing lox. Both are about 35 years old and made from carbon steel. They can get an incredible edge, but don't hold it as long as stainless high carbon and don't stay bright for long.

A pair of cleavers, the upper one is a very thin blade, the closest I could get to a Chinese cleaver and the lower one is a much heavier cleaver, gift of the aforementioned ex-mother-in-law and very useful. These live on a magnetic strip near one stove and both do get used.

I've little use for slicers as I use my chef's knife or a carving knife (mini scimitar).

That is a slicer on top, with scalloped blade, a carbon steel mini-scimitar in the middle, and a carving knife on the bottom. As said, I tend to use the bottom two, although the slicer is useful on some occasions where sawing is needed, it does make a great bread knife and we have one of those as well.

These are 3 sizes of the Chef's knife. The lowest is 8", carbon steel and my wife arrived with it. She has since moved to the one in the middle, a 10" stainless high carbon steel modern blade, and the top is an unfortunate purchase I made without handling. I knew I liked my wife's 10" and this is it's big 12" brother, however it doesn't weight much more and thus is too light for it's length in my opinion. But that is OK, I like my wife's 10" just fine.

These are my wife's three favorite big knifes, she uses the Santuko almost as much as the Chef's knife.

The knife kit does go into sharpening, this is another plus in it's favor. Most people and books will tell you to take your knife to a pro. I'll tell you that and I've been sharpening knives for over 40 years. I don't use gadgets, although I do have a power sharpener in the basement, from the time the 10 year old decided to cut a skewer with the cleaver. I use three things.

At the top is a 2 grit waterstone, use it wet, the 1000 grit first then flip it and use the 8000 grit. This is really for the Santukos. The object in the middle is a 2 grit whetstone, regardless of what manuals say this can be used dry, it may be silent but there is an 'h' in that name. Water or oil is used to disapate heat, you just don't generate that much heat with a simple whetstone. And on the bottom is a steel for honing. The knife is moved across either stone as it would be on the steel. Patience.

So to sum it up. The CIA is the more advanced of the two books, but the other is of more use to the beginer. Of course you could do as I did and get both (and I'm looking for the Weinsein).


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  • 3/26/2008 7:19 PM Andy wrote:
    Great post. I am definitely interested in learning more about sharpening and knife skills. Unfortunately I am too far away for the CIA course, but I am going to look into one or two of those books in the future. I am a lefty but I cut right handed.
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  • 3/27/2008 1:39 PM Robert wrote:

    Enjoying your posts, Im seeing a increase in interest in do it yourself meat cutting crowd. Think you may be onto the 'cutting edge' of something here....... (sorry, had to do that one).

    A downside that you havent mentioned about haveing a complement of really sharp knives in the kitchen is when the extended family comes and uses them. First they all cut the crap out of themselves helping prepare a meal and then they want to bring all of their knives over for you to sharpen them. Worse yet they then brag to the rest of the extended family how sharp your knives were. It can be a snowball. Ive drawn the line, my daughters and mom only.

    Ive finally gotten the better half to allow a tri-stone to reside in plain sight on the counter in her otherwise color coordinated blue kitchen. This was accomplished by years of keeping all of the myriad kitchen tools razor sharp, until she was completely spoiled rotten. Now I can put a few swipes of the fine diamond on every tool when it is put away. In sight, In mind......

    Good to have you enlightening the masses that they can care for their own knife. Hope my inlaws are reading.
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  • 3/27/2008 3:27 PM ErikaK wrote:
    I have those Henkels knives as well, but find that the paring knife and utility knife don't keep an edge very well. We have the set but ditched the steak knives for Laguioles (bought cheap at GreatIndoors). We bought a Messermeister slicing knife (with the grooved side like a santoku) that we really love. My husband has a huge Forschner chef knife, too big for me. I have actually switched to using my 10" santoku for most things, it really minces like a dream. Big step up from the old Chicago Cutlery knives we got for our wedding gifts!
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  • 3/27/2008 3:50 PM charcuteire wrote:
    We've a utility knife and paring knife that are Henckels and came with the block, but the paring knife shown (I think) is the high end one and it does hold an edge.

    I use the utility knife to open boxes. Neither it nor the paring knife nor the Chef's knife that came with the block hold an edge that well.

    The slicer came with my wife's knife kit for her first CIA Boot Camp.

    That Henckles Chef knife wasn't the most expensive my wife was shown (that was Japanese) but it was the one she liked the most
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  • 3/28/2008 8:34 AM charcuteire wrote:
    I can but a 20 block of chuck roast, good meat too, for under $2/lb (well last month I'm certain it is up). A couple of weeks ago the local supermarket had both Austrailian (or New Zealand) prime rib and whole leg of lamb as loss leaders. We bought two of each. Yes there was a limit of one each per family but my wife has a different last name so getting two shopping cards was simple. Yet another reason for women to keep their own name. Simple application of a hacksaw turned both legs into a total of six roasts, and the prime ribs into four roasts. I can also deal with a bone in pork loin, butterfly a leg of lamb or a ham.

    The butcher my mother used had no power saw, just some meat saws, cleavers and sharp knives. Mostly he bought sides and whole pigs.

    As to extended family, most are too young to help and the two who are interested in cooking. Well the mother is a nurse and knows about knives and the 9 year old daughter knows she is too young.

    I have sharpened some knives, but they have to bring them to me.

    Years ago my now wife brought her then live in boyfriend (she was living with my son and I) home for Thanksgiving. Her father was less than pleased that she was living out of wedlock. I watched her brother start to mangle the turkey with a 'carving' set, stopped him, went and got her 8" Chef's knife (pictured here someplace, she was cooking the meal and brought tools), and carved the bird. Her father, apparently having his first properly carved bird, turned to her and went: "You can keep him".
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  • 3/28/2008 1:10 PM Robert wrote:
    Very simular circumstance here. Father-in-law-to-be confided that "the previous 'lout' that took his daughter didnt have one knife in their house that could cut up the holiday bird." They had ended up just breaking it down into big pieces for everyone. Guess my melt in the mouth slices of smoked bird impressed him, he said "OK, shes yours."...... How ironic.

    Too young? Grandaughter is turning 7, handles a 8" Chef better than many adults I have known. Mother and grandma freaked out at first, but they are over it, havent been to the hospital yet. Shes already rotten, whines about her moms dull knife, thus me maintaining them also.

    But then, she outfishes me with her Barbie fishing pole too.
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  • 3/28/2008 2:07 PM charcuteire wrote:
    I don't have control of the girl's cooking education, that is in the hands of my wife. As well to chop in my kitchen she would have to be standing on something and that would make me nervous.

    The girl has been to a cooking class at the CIA which involved baking and hot toffee, so she is safe around dangerous things.
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  • 4/7/2008 11:12 PM neil wrote:
    Really good advice there. I took my F. Dick knives, over 30 years old, to a so called professional, who then all most butchered them. Time for a wet stone me thinks.
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  • 4/8/2008 12:36 PM Charcuteire wrote:
    When I took knife skills at CIA, one fellow student who was quite proud of his new Chef's knife, discovered he had owned it just long enough for a hardware store to destroy it. Mostly I do my own, although there is one place I trust.
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