Let's get one thing out of the way right up front. The only real bad luck you'll encounter in the matter of giving knives as gifts is having the kind of friends who think giving knives as gifts is bad luck. Sure, you can go through the rigmarole of exchanging coins as tokens when the knife changes hands – a cute ritual signifying that you've "paid" for it, nullifying the severed-friendship connotation of knife-giving – or you could simply put the superstition to one side. Whatever you do in the kitchen, a knife is going to be a welcome Christmas present.
Unlike buying a car or health insurance, there's not much to consider in the way of options. The essential design of the chef's knife – a sharp bit that cuts things, and a less sharp bit to hang onto – doesn't vary much. What has changed in recent years in Australia is the emergence of Japanese knives as a popular alternative to European steel. A straw poll of the chefs of the five top-ranked restaurants in the current GT Australian Restaurant Guide reveals that each of them has a Japanese knife.
Marque's Mark Best complements his Sabatier with "some blades from Kitchen Town in Tokyo" and Peter Gilmore, in a fittingly elegant East-West twist, uses the Michel Bras line made by Kai. Cutler & Co. chef Andrew McConnell favours a 15cm double-edged Masanobu stainless steel knife with a compressed timber handle and nickel bolsters he bought in Japan four years ago. "I like using the Masanobu not just for the quality of the materials," he says, "but also because it's a simply beautiful object, well balanced and strong enough for all-purpose use." Neil Perry and Shannon Bennett, both spokesmen for their brands, meanwhile, use the standard 30cm Shun chef's knife and a 32cm carbon-steel Mac respectively. Bennett's whole team uses custom-made Mac knives, and he says they're worth every penny. They're "great blades, easy to keep sharp," he adds. "Just don't ever clean with vinegar or lemon juice."
At their shiniest, Japanese knives can be very, very expensive indeed. Take the Waning Crescent Moon, a water-quenched sashimi knife that sports an ebony handle capped with – wait for it – white buffalo horn. That baby will set you back a cool $2250 at Sydney's Chef's Armoury. And it's not just specialist blades that can rack up the big dollars. The 17cm black nickel Fujii santoku (also capped with buffalo horn) you see here is a chef's knife, and if you're lucky enough to score one of the three for sale at Chef's Armoury (of a total of 12 blades forged for the line, full-stop), you'll be parting with $2688. It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, very sharp indeed, but when you're getting into this end of the price spectrum, it's about more than utility, says the Armoury's Leigh Hudson. It's about making "your friends really jealous".
At what Hudson calls the "sub-freaking awesome level", there's also some very fine Japanese steel to be had for prices that don't require a bank loan. At $425.95, the brand-new 24cm ripple-finished Mcusta gyuto is still very much an object capable of inspiring feelings of lust in the eyes of the beholder, says Hudson. The idea of the ripple finish is that food is less likely to stick to the blade as you slice.
The biggest name in Japanese knives, of course, and the company that really brought them to prominence outside Japan, is the fittingly named Global. The keen edge, space-age design and famous lightness of Global knives (such as the 20cm G2, $155, seen here) have made them a household name – in houses where cutting things neatly and finely is a priority, at any rate.
Like the Globals, knives from Shun, a newer player on the Australian market, are priced in a way that makes them an easy entry point into the world of Japanese steel. The 20cm Shun Classic ($279) is easy to put an edge on and stays remarkably sharp.
Lightness isn't to every cook's taste, though. If you want a blade with some heft, it's hard to go past a piece of classic German steel, and Wüsthof's Classic 20cm chef's knife ($259) holds its edge, sits easily and comfortably in the hand (the squared off heels of some Japanese knives can make for some exciting nicks and scratches for the uninitiated) and is robust as all get out.
And finally, for pure value, just about nothing beats an entry-level Victorinox when it comes to the dollars-for-sharpness ratio. The handles are plastic, true, but when you look at the fact that the 25cm model costs $69.95, and see how well they last and how sharp they stay, it's easy to see why they're standard-issue for apprentices everywhere. If there's a better knife to give to someone setting up home or to keep spare at the beach house, we're yet to see it.
PHOTOGRAPHY ANDREW FINLAYSON