By Joe Yonan, Globe Staff, 4/15/2004
When Bernard Marcovitz owned Stoddard's Cutlery in Downtown Crossing seven decades ago, selling high-end kitchen knives was a relatively uncomplicated affair.
There was a handful of manufacturers, from the United States, England, and Germany. Most of the knives were of a similar design: carbon steel, black handle, three simple rivets. And conversations with customers concentrated on such pragmatic concerns as how often a particular knife had to be sharpened. Aesthetics were hardly a factor, limited to knives such as carving sets that would be used at the table, not hidden in the kitchen.
Now look behind the counter at Stoddard's, in a different location and operated by Marcovitz's grandson, David Marks. Alongside the classic black-handled German knives are the kinds of angles and curves -- in stainless steel, wood, and plastic -- that seem positively sculptural by comparison. And among the standard chef's, paring, and boning knives is a shape now carried by virtually every high-end knife maker: a Japanese santoku, whose cleaver-shaped blade makes it ideal for dicing and whose dim-
pled edges help produce paper-thin slices. "It's not as simple as it used to be," says Marks.
That's putting it mildly. These days, there is such a range of handles, blades, materials, and manufacturers that many of the old rules of knife buying simply don't apply. And with such attention to design, knives have transcended mere utility to become, in some cases, an art form in and of themselves.
Changes in the knife world began in the kitchen, appropriately enough. In the old days of the 1950s, knives didn't need to be beautiful: Guests stayed in the dining and living rooms and never ventured beyond the swinging doors. But as kitchens became more of a focal point in homes, cooks wanted knives as upscale and solid as their granite countertops. Food Network junkies coveted the tools they saw their heroes wielding, so they gravitated toward the heavy knives made by such renowned companies as Germany's Wusthof-Trident. Later, American fascination with sushi exposed cooks to the lighter knives of sushi chefs.
Positioned perfectly to capitalize on these converging trends was Yoshikin, a Japanese company that introduced its revolutionary Global knives in the mid-1980s. Forget those black wooden handles and metal rivets; even though they are made of three pieces, Global knives appear to be one seamless expanse of stainless steel, with black pockmarks for gripping, and they are light as a feather.
Not that their lightness immediately went over well with salespeople, accustomed as they were to the conventional wisdom that a heavy knife was an advantage in the kitchen.
Fifteen years ago, "I'd spend hours saying to salesmen that the weight of the knife doesn't really matter," says Jack Bevington, president of Sointu, the US distributor of Global knives. "The cutting is a function of the sharpness, not the weight. The weight only makes it more fatiguing."
"Americans tend to equate weight with substance," agrees Marks of Stoddards. He adds, "Sometimes a lightweight knife is much more responsive."
Chefs were early converts to the new knives. By 1998, Bobby Flay was slicing and dicing with his Globals every day on the Food Network, and in 2000, author Anthony Bourdain waxed rhapsodic about their sharpness in "Kitchen Confidential," the best-selling myth-debunker about the restaurant industry.
The result: Every year for the past decade, Bevington says, Global's business has grown by 25 to 30 percent.
And now discussions with consumers have become that much more complicated. With German-style knives that are fully forged from a single piece of steel, the heavy handle is balanced by two features: the bolster, the thicker part between blade and handle that also serves as a finger guard; and the tang, the section that extends through the wooden or plastic handle. Without a well-designed bolster and a visible, fully extended tang, a knife was considered inferior because it was assumed to not be properly balanced and, therefore, not as comfortable.
But a Global knife cannot be described in any of those terms. The steel is thinner, and the blade is lighter, so there is no need for extra balancing weight. Indeed, Global's use of hollow handles filled with sand makes for a balance that seems almost organic; as you move, the knife's weight almost imperceptibly shifts with you, so that it feels like an extension of your wrist. Combined with such a sharp cutting edge and a look that seemed straight from an animator's pen, it was like no other knife before it.
Even the venerable Wusthof-Trident, which makes the world's best-selling high-end knives, had to take notice. A few years ago it introduced its Culinar line, which features a stainless-steel handle whose curves are designed to be not only more eye-catching, but ergonomic.
Its newest line, called Le Cordon Bleu because of a partnership with the renowned French cooking school, has more traditional looks but Japanese-style thinner blades, a finer edge, lighter weight, and a half-bolster design with no finger guard. Neil Crumley, president of Wusthof-America, expects the line to appeal to professionals or wannabes, "but it probably won't find its way into Macy's, because salespeople will have to explain to the average person that you're getting `less knife' for more money," he says. "In the ad copy, I referred to it as more agile."
Meanwhile, from Crumley's perspective, 2003 will forever be known as the year of the santoku, the knife with the snub-nosed shaped blade that the company has had in its catalog for at least 15 years. A cross between a cleaver and a French cook's knife, it didn't sell particularly well until Williams-Sonoma asked Wusthof to put what's called a granton edge on the blade, hollowing out little scallops to keep food from sticking during slicing. The edge had long been a staple of commercial meat slicers.
Then Rachael Ray, star of the Food Network's "30 Minute Meals" and "$40 a Day," picked one up in 2002 and found that its lighter weight was easier on her chronically sore wrists. At 7 inches, "It's a nice size," Ray says. "And the shape gives me great control. I use it for everything."
That's all her legions of fans needed to hear. Wusthof eventually began shipping up to 5,000 santokus a week to keep up with demand, but still couldn't. Crumley and Ray both say Wusthof had nothing to do with her decision to praise the knife on her shows, and that she has never been paid any fees for her support. "Retailers told us that customer after customer came in and said, `What's that knife Rachael Ray is using?' " Crumley says. "And there was only one answer: ours. It was a blessing from God.' "
Now virtually every high-end knife manufacturer, from Wusthof to Massachusetts' own Lamson & Goodnow, is prominently featuring a santoku shape. Some are including them in sets, and cutlery shop owners like Marks advocate their consideration as a substitute for a cook's knife. Their popularity, and the popularity of lighter knives in general, has also coincided with a move toward smaller knives. Lamson, the oldest continuously operating cutlery company in America, last year introduced a 4-inch chef's knife and this year is introducing a 5-inch santoku. "Some people are intimidated by large knives," says Kurt Zanner, president of Lamson, whose factory is in Shelburne Falls.
Meanwhile, the Global impact continues. Chroma, a maker of Japanese knives, engaged car maker F.A. Porsche to design its Type 301 line, an all-stainless knife that looks "surgical," says chef Mark Ellis, owner of The Chef's Table in Pembroke. Instead of a bolster, a little metal ball, or "pearl," designates the transition from handle to blade.
The knife is weighted toward the handle, which some find unwieldy, but Ellis is a fan. "I like the look of them, right out of the gate, but I also really love the edge."
As with Global, Chroma renders some of the traditional standards of knife-buying irrelevant, while claiming to offer a more comfortable handle. But since there are more variations in human anatomy and preference than in knife handles, that makes a customer-sensitive retailer like David Marks of Stoddard's more certain than ever about his most important piece of advice.
No matter how sleek the knife, no one should buy it without picking it up, mimicking the motions of chopping, peeling, and slicing, and then asking themselves the simplest question: How does it feel in my hand?
His grandfather, as it happens, would have advised exactly the same thing. the end-
I can't praise my Globals enough!!! They are crazy sharp. Chroma has got A very wicked looking knife also$$