A Short Conversation with My Dad About Knives

17 May


“Dad, how do you pick out a knife?”


“Yeah, how. Like, if I didn’t own a single knife and I needed to go get one, what can you tell me about knives.”

I’ve been pressing my dad–an 84-year-old retired butcher–with questions like this for the past couple of years. After growing up working in his shop and spending a lifetime as a butcher’s daughter, I realized there were a lot questions I’d never asked, millions of hours wasted not paying attention, and far too many things I hadn’t learned. And that the fault of this rested on my own shoulders. A sort of clock-ticking panic has set in.

So now I ask. I ask a lot, often with a notebook and pen in hand, scribbling away to his bemused consternation–everything from family stories to practical cutting and cooking questions. He’s proud of his life’s work, but Mike Zavatto is not a guy who likes being interviewed, so this has to be done in small doses and with great care. How do I cut up a chicken? Can you teach me how to make sausage? What cut of  beef should I buy for a pot roast? A roast-roast? All these questions, meted out slowly, carefully. And then sometimes impatiently. There never seems to be enough time.

I brought him all of my blades to sharpen for me one recent weekend, plied him with a roast beef sandwich, and followed up with a few questions about about knives. Tthis is what he had to say:

Type of knife he prefers: “I always like a carbon steel, but now they’re a carbon-stainless mix.”

What’s the difference? “Carbon steel doesn’t keep the shine, but it’s the best steel. It’s harder to keep it clean. It dulls, turns like a grayish tone, and it’ll tend to rust if you don’t keep it clean or put a little mineral oil on it. Should do that every time you wash them. Carbon steel holds an edge better than the mix.”

And the mix?The mix is not as good. Problem is, you can’t keep [the 100% carbon] shiny like the mix. They will be more sanitary because they stay cleaner. If you look at the knives I have in the drawer, they’re carbon steel and they look dark. And there are knives in there mixed [that are] shiny. Those are the carbon steel mixed with stainless.”

Should I buy carbon steel? “If you can find them–there are none around unless you buy second hand. Probably more expensive, too. Nobody wants to sell them. Those that have them, keep them. They hold a better edge. [The material] trues the edge and stays sharper than the fancy mix.”

How do I buy a knife? “I go by brand, usually.”

Which do you like? “Swibo, they’re Swedish, I believe. Forschner, I don’t know what the hell they are. I’m talking now knives we used in my trade. A lot of times a chef will use a different brand. For a U.S.-made knife, very practical and inexpensive, I like Chicago Cutlery. Excellent knife for the price. Did you see how when I sharpened yours it took the edge fast? It’s good steel. It cuts well.”

Which is the best? “You don’t know you like it until you use it. Some are fancy but don’t hold an edge. Just because it costs a lot of money doesn’t mean it’s a good knife.”

Any others? “Japanese [knives] are very good–Santoku, I like. The indentations make it easier to cut. It’s a good all-purpose knife. Lets you eliminate having a serrated for bread–it takes the place of two or three.”

If I had no knives, what are the bare-minimum of knives I need in my kitchen? “You would need a paring knife. You would need what I call a 6-inch boning knife. And one of those Japanese Santokus–that’s good for carving, bread, chopping. It came out five or ten years ago. It’s not an old knife; it’s a new design.”


2 Responses to “A Short Conversation with My Dad About Knives”

  1. Linda May 18, 2012 at 11:15 am #

    great info regarding the different types of steel used to make knives. surprised that a 10″ chefs knife was not in the mix of preferred knives to have.

    • hungercompass May 18, 2012 at 12:27 pm #

      I know! I kept pressing him about the basic knife compilation and asked about that, but he stuck to his guns. Could it be he’s becoming a minimalist??!

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