Monday, June 14, 2010

German cutlery is on very hard-times right now

When I was kid, expensive, elite kitchen cutlery was a German thing. It was understood by us kids that Moms and Grandmoms would get very jealous when they heard a certain neighbor-lady just got a set of German knives.

German knives were the best. German knives were expensive also. Everybody wanted them. Not everybody could or would afford them. They were kinda like a KitchenAid stand mixer these days. German knives were the "some-day, eventually, maybe soon" thing grandma might buy. We wanted to get grandma a set of these things for Christmas, but damn... they were just so expensive.

Today, I am amazed to see how completely the Japanese have taken over the market. The Germans are way off in the distance. Not since the 49ers blew past the Rams in the NFC West during the 1980s have I seen such a thing. The Rams owned the West for decades. The 49ers seized control in one fell-swoop. Likewise, the Japanese have completely taken control of the cutlery market, setting the Germans in deep second place.

How the hell did they do it? It's a complex picture. It would include all of the following things:
  1. A radical new design (from the viewpoint of the West) call the Santoko
  2. A radical new design (from the viewpoint of the West) called the Gokujo.
  3. The rediscovery of how to make Damascus steel.
  4. The use of the 15 degree angle rather than a 22.
  5. The use of double-hollow ground blades rather than a single bevel.
  6. The use of V10 steel and beyond
  7. Some very beautiful design work.
  8. Some hellacious demos.
First and foremost, it has to be understood that a thousand years of Japanese technological development in relative isolation brought about some unique fruits. The Gokujo fillet knife and the Santoko chef's knife are completely traditional designs in Japan. We have analogs, but they aren't much like these blades.

Everybody who tries a Santoku is instantly converted. I, personally, have never found a more useful instrument. The only thing it lacks is a sharp point at the end, which would help. Enter the Gokujo. We think of it as fillet knife, but it is a lot more than than. It is the other general purpose blade in a Japanese chef's toolkit. Believe me, they beat the living hell out of a fillet knife.

Using these two blades for the first time, especially if they are from high-end vendors like Shun, blows the mind of the typical middle-american kitchen cook. It has a similar effect of Le Cordon Bleu certified master chefs. It makes you believe the Japanese are a bunch of geniuses.

The Damascus steel is another monster. The real Damascus steel was made by taking wootz steel, with mineral resources flowing from India, and using several pattern welding techniques pioneered by the various Celtic tribes. It made legendary blades that could actually slice through European swords, and pierce shields.

The Japanese don't use wootz steel or pattern welding. They fold two super-thin sheets of steel, one stainless and one high carbon, some 33 times until they form their blank. This is a forging technique, but not from castings. The favorite claim is that V10 steel exceeds anything else known to mankind. There is a group called Masahiro who claims MBS-26 steel is even better.

Whatever the case may, Japanese 'Damascus' steel is absolutely fascinating stuff, and it has totally captured the imagination of the entire world. Japanese Damascus steel now defines the high-end of kitchen cutlery. Everybody wants some. The blades look sensational. To see them is to see artwork. Not just artwork, but highly functional artwork. Even Ginsu is playing this game with devastating effects.

J.A. Henckels sold-out almost completely, gave up on their traditional lines of German cutlery, and got Iron Chef Morimoto to lend some street-cred to their fusion line of Japan-esque knives. You can't exactly call them Japanese. You can call this full-market capitulation.

But what of Wüsthof? For those who don't know, Wüsthof once defined the high-end of the kitchen cutlery market... in the whole world. Nobody but nobody was better. At the risk of quoting Soundgarden, they fell on black days.

Well, they have responded, and they are adapting. Their big move was to get together with Le Cordon Bleu in France and workup an all-new set of highly-refined knives that would be ideal for the European cooking tradition. Evidently, Le Cordon Bleu's staff of culinary professors took this opportunity seriously, and worked very hard with Wüsthof on this project. They came up with a set of knives that now bears the school's name.

Evidentially, these blades are 30% lighter than their other Wüsthof analogs. They are still made out of high carbon steel, not stainless steel, or Damascus. The are still forged from poured blanks. They are now hollow ground rather than beveled on the edge. They now have a synthetic stock material rather than wood. They still have the full-tang. They still have the signature three rivets. They have even embraced a limited use of kullens on a limited basis. The reviews are pretty sweet. Most experts are giving these items an A to A+ grade.

Still, the powerful shift in world-market tastes are hurting Wüsthof. Le Cordon Bleu is arguably the finest product they have ever made, yet they command far fewer dollars than their Japanese competitors do. At this very moment, you can buy a 8-piece set of Wüsthof Le Cordon Bleu knives for just $279 bucks, which I find shocking... shockingly low, in case you were wondering. At the same time a 7 piece set of Miyabi knives will set you back $449.

It is unfortunate that I am having such trouble finding the Le Cordon Bleu 8 inch chef's knife. I would have purchased it already. It looks like the perfect knife. The kullens make it perfect. I like kullens. Kullens do break friction and make for way less 'stickiness'.

I must say, I am sorely tempted to get a set of these Le Cordon Bleu knives. But then again, you know I love ceramic cubic zirconia.

If I were you, and if I were looking for an absolute steal on killer kitchen steel, I would definitely take advantage of the Wüsthof offer. You simply can't do better than this offer at this price.