My knives are as dull as an SEC filing. They're flung in a drawer unsheathed, neglected. I've cut on glass and porcelain -- just about everything the experts tell you not to do. Dicing garlic now takes half an hour and my full body weight, rendering the 60-Minute Gourmet just a Lenny and George pipe dream. I'm willing to pay for my transgressions, but in return I want a sharp, handsome kitchen companion that can hold an edge -- and get me back my 30 minutes. So, with a nod to Sarbanes-Oxley, my TheStreet.com testing team -- an operating room nurse (think scalpel), an ex-chef at Chez Panisse and Bouley, a food writer, two skilled-amateur cooks and one garden-variety kitchener -- grants you some knife options and how to expense them. Japanese and Japanese-style knives are what everyone's been talking about for the past four or five years, ever since the Holy Three -- Tony Bourdain, Bobby Flay and Rachel Ray -- brandished them in their books and on the Food Network. But "trendy Japanese knives" is an Occidental oxymoron: Swordsmiths from Seki City and Sakai have been tempering steel since the 1500s, their wares slicing up sashimi 100 years hence. Classic Western knives, circa early 19th century, from behemoths such as J.A. Henckels and Wusthof-Trident hail from Solingen, Germany; and Sabatier from Thiers, France, the historic home of guillotine blades.
For knifemakers, alchemical gold is a metal that can take a sharp edge and hold it. The quality of the steel (carbon + iron) and the use of alloys (see the 20s on your periodic table), and especially heat treatment, or tempering, give the blade its properties. Blades made from Japanese steel are thinner, lighter and more brittle, or harder, than standard Western counterparts, and thus have more potential for a sharper edge.