Line cooks arguably have the most physically and mentally demanding job in any restaurant. In the classical French brigade de cuisine, or kitchen hierarchy, line cooks are comparable to infantry soldiers. In constant two-step with the head chef and standing over a smoking plancha, wok, or cast-iron skillet for up to 10 hours a day, line cooks put in hours upon hours to hone their skills and prove their worth. They can plate a mean shishitos en nogada or tofu Benedict, but their day-to-day on the line is anything but precious.
Because they spend so many hours in the kitchen, a line cook’s knife also has to hold up to pressure. Many swear by some variation of a chef’s knife, the most universal, all-purpose knife one can buy (though even chef’s knives vary based on the country of manufacture, the brand, and other factors). Other cooks have less conventional picks.
So, for the home cook looking for that one, perfect, bet-your-life-on-it knife, we asked six line cooks — in this case, all from New York City — for their go-to blade.
For his work as garde manger at Lalito, Elliot Alvarado uses a seven-inch Damascus steel gyutou (a Japanese chef’s knife) by Togiharu. The model is a Korin exclusive with a hammered blade and, according to Alvarado, a “gorgeous piece of metal.” Though he finds it to be seriously versatile, he admits that slicing through hard vegetables and bones can cause the edge to deteriorate and require more frequent sharpening. This knife is a great investment if you want something classy but don’t mind a bit of extra time in front of the sharpening stone. (Listening to Brock Hampton and Frank Ocean helps Alvarado cope with the sharpening, not to mention the crying as he preps quarts of onions.)
Back when he worked plancha and garde manger at Annicka, a farm-brewery restaurant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Noah Clark used a Wusthof Classic 6-Inch Hollow Edge Cook’s Knife (what Wusthof calls its chef’s knives). If you had to compare it to a car, it would be a Ford F150, according to Clark: “It’s such a good middle-of-the-road knife for everything.” Requiring very little maintenance, it’s a workhorse of a knife. The “hollow edge” dimples are meant to prevent food from sticking to the blade, and the shorter length means greater control over raw ingredients like crudo. Though it doesn’t shine in any one particular area, Clark says, “my knife really doesn’t have an Achilles heel.”
Ask John Hutt, chef at the Museum of Food and Drink, how much a line cook should spend on a knife, and he’ll tell you straight up: $25. A first-generation immigrant from Scotland and a line cook for over seven years, John often found himself the only white dude working in Chinese restaurant kitchens. Watching his fellow cooks using a single Chinese-style cleaver known as a cai dao for every single task, he thought, “I’m gonna learn how to do that.”
In his experience, the best Chinese knives are mass-produced in Hong Kong and can replace every other knife in a cook’s roll. Truly all-purpose, the cai dao (literally “vegetable knife”) gets put to use when cutting through bone, carving a lamb, or even peeling ginger. His recommendation is a high-carbon stainless steel specimen from the brand Xin Rongda. (A similar one is below, available online and also at many Chinese restaurant supply stores.) “I take this with me if I go anywhere,” says John. “I took this to Spain, I took it to India, I took it everywhere.” And when he’s not relying on his cleaver, John recommends another tool that’s even cheaper: “a pair of scissors.”
There’s a reason Japanese knives are so worshipped: Their blades are typically crafted from extra-hard steel and are sharpened at smaller angles than other knives (the smaller the angle, the sharper the blade). Orlando Vaquero’s knife, a Togiharu gifted to him by his boss, chef Jacob Clark at Maison Premiere, is “like a baby” to him. “I don’t ever let anybody else touch it,” he says. His experience using the knife got him interested in the craft of knife-making in Japan. However, his roots are firm: He prefers to wield his knife in his home kitchen while listening to traditional ranchera from Mexico, sounds that bring him back to a childhood spent watching his mom cook pozole and tamales.
Buy Togiharu Molybdenum Steel Gyutou Knife, $156
Allie Brodt is a freshly minted culinary school graduate from Huntington Beach, California, working the line at Modern Love in Brooklyn. She started out there as “toast bitch,” a playful term for anyone in charge of toasting French bread for the vegan restaurant’s burgers and famous chickpea cutlet Parmesan. Brodt’s tool of choice is a 7-inch santoku-style knife from Mercer, which she received in her culinary school kit. An alternative to the chef’s knife, a santoku is an all-purpose knife, particularly well-suited to vegetables. With a curved tip and flat edge, it’s ideal for cooks who prefer an abrupt, straight-down motion when slicing, as opposed to the rocking motion required with a chef’s knife. Shorter and lighter in weight, it’s also excellent for the petite cook.
Buy Mercer Culinary Genesis 7-Inch Forged Santoku Knife, $30
A proud pastry cook, Alicia Bass of Dirt Candy relies on a 10-inch Global chef’s knife for cutting cakes, doughs, and eggplant for the restaurant’s famous eggplant Foster. For her “very tiny hands,” the thin, dimpled handle is ideal, she says, but the blade’s extra length is a boon when cutting long, elegant slices for cakes and desserts. It was a gift from her former mentor at the Hard Rock Cafe and Casino in Fort Lauderdale, and she says she “didn’t even want to use it — honestly, I wanted to just frame it.” She didn’t, though. “That knife has been through everything with me from the very beginning.”
Buy Global Classic 10-Inch Classic Chef’s Knife, $171
A former cook at the Breslin, Jean Nihoul currently cooks for Amali restaurants with a Glestain 8-inch gyutou. Purchased at Korin in 2009, the knife’s weight is concentrated in the handle, as opposed to the heavier blade on a German knife. “It makes it feel more like a part of my hand,” he says. It can be used for anything, from dicing to mincing to butchering fish, though he admits the stiff blade makes it less ideal for breaking down large whole cuts of meat.
While a quality chef’s knife rarely comes cheap, it’s possibly the best investment a burgeoning or experienced home cook can make. In Nihoul’s words, “I don’t see a need to own any other knife other than a chef’s knife.”
Correction: January 8, 2019, 8:54 a.m. This article previously misstated Orlando Vaquero’s last name as Velasquez.
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