One of the most important and often over-looked tool in the kitchen is the knife. Sure, we all have knives in the kitchen, probably several different shapes and sizes. But for the serious cook, a knife is not only an important tool, it can be a thing of style, function and beauty. Often a status symbol in the world of "foodies" and Chefs. Sure, a ten dollar knife will accomplish the same thing as a thousand dollar knife but the same thing can be said about a Kia and a Porsche. There is a difference. Obviously not everyone can or wants to own a Porsche but as with knives there are a number of choices to fit the appropriate level of expertise, style of cooking and budget.
The two distinct types of Chef knives are Western, being the most common and Asian or Japanese style. The Western style knife can be identified by a large heavy handle with a full bolster and tang. The steel is usually stainless and relatively soft. The Japanese style is light, nimble and little emphasis is placed on the handle. It's essentially a tapered wooden peg they mount to a rat tail tang. The steel is usually carbon and hard. Due to current culinary trends Japanese knives are fast becoming the expert's knife of choice.
With the invention of the internet (Thanks Al) and the popularity of sushi came the growth of Japanese style knives in the United States.
Now Western and Japanese companies make both styles of knife so you can have the best of both worlds if you choose.
Things to consider when choosing a knife:
Style of cooking, level of expertise, sharpening experience or willingness to learn. Whether they are careful about their tools, (stainless vs carbon) cares about the latest trends or likes the latest and greatest.
Western Style: Some name brands, Wusthoff, Henkel, Mercer, Sabatier, (carbon) Forschner, Victorinox, Cutco and Messermeister to name a few. As mentioned before, they tend to be softer steel which doesn't allow them to get as sharp but they won't stain and take a beating in the kitchen. Often you'll find these in a nice set in a wooden block holder. Although I am not a fan of sets. You tend to waste money on knives that you don't need or use. Most brands make different quality grades in several price points. I'm a believer in "you get what you pay for" so you can generally use that as a guideline. Look for a forged knife. Not one that is stamped. Stamped knives are cheaper, thinner, more delicate and tend to be too flexible. The Western style is for cooks that don't want to worry about their knives staining or chipping, don't sharpen their knives often, (A simple honing will often do the trick.) who's cooking style is more Western based, (beef, hardy vegetables etc) and has traditional taste in kitchen gadgets.
Most of the previously mentioned brands make a decent knife for the buck with the exception of Cutco. I'm sorry but in my opinion if you own a set I'd like to talk to you about a bridge for sale.
Japanese Style: The knives that different cultures use is based on the types of food they cook. Japanese knives are designed to cut mostly fish and vegetables so they tend to be light, nimble, made with carbon steel and are higher maintenance. They really are the sports cars of the knife world and need to be cleaned, dried and sharpened. The Japanese style of knife is for cooks who do a lot of Asian style cooking, likes to fiddle with tools, appreciates and uses a very sharp knife and enjoys things a little uncommon. I happen to fall into this group. Some name brands you may have heard of are Global and Shun. The two biggest players on the block. They actually aren't very good examples of a Japanese knife. They were primarily made for the Western market. Some examples of quality Japanese makers are Masamoto, Nenohi, Mizuno Tanrenjo and Shigefusa. As opposed to the Western makers who make several different grades of knife the Japanese makers don't. There are specific makers that find themselves in certain price points. Examples of low to mid priced makers are Tojiro, Hiromoto, Togiharu, Konosuke and Mac.
I often find that a good kitchen knife is one of those gifts that works for the person that seems to have everything already. You know the type.
The knife world has really opened up and there are many more choices available out there. Just Google"chef's knife" to find a vendor. As with most things these days the internet is a great place to find unique gifts and kitchen knives is no different. Some of my favorites include:
http://www.chefknivestogo.com/ Huge selection of both Western and Japanese knives. Based in Madison. Quick shipping but you have to pay tax.
http://japanesechefsknife.com/ Exclusively Japanese. Based in Sakai, Japan. Fast and cheap shipping. Great people. Tell Koki Salty sent you.
http://www.japaneseknifeimports.com/ Also Japanese exclusive. Very knowledgable and customer friendly. Based in California.
http://www.cutleryandmore.com/ Big guy on the block. Sells much more than knives.
http://www.epicedge.com/ Generally high end Japanese and custom knives.
http://korin.com/site/home.html Japanese knives and some really cool Japanese plates, sushi items, bamboo, etc.
I'm just scratching the surface when it comes to kitchen knives. If anyone is interested I can answer specific questions regarding knives and their use. I also give periodic classes on knife skills and sharpening.
As a side note I'd like to mention that tradition dictates a knife never be "given" as a gift. The recipient traditionally will offer the gift-er a token sum. A nickel is most popular. Also I don't advise giving cutlery as wedding gifts. There is an old wives tale about that as well.
Have a great Holiday season and stay sharp!