When it comes to knives, David Holly is an undisputed expert. The executive chef puts his expertise on display as the owner of knifemerchant.com – home to an impressively curated collection of knives and a showroom that draws in culinary schools and pro chefs alike.
Like every master of his trade, Holly knows that the right tools are essential to doing the job right. Master Grade recently sat down with Holly to discuss his passion for food, his essential knives, and how to instantly judge the quality of this essential chef’s tool.
Master Grade: Why are you so passionate about knives, and why do they fascinate you?
David Holly: I’m very passionate about food. Knives are the primary and most personal tool any chef will ever use. They are our most used and most dangerous tool, and should be treated as most important because they can do so much for you–or against you.
MG: Do you specialize in a certain kind of cuisine?
DH: As an executive chef, I have worked for a lot of corporations. I have my favorites, and would consider seafood my specialty, with a lot of Pacific Rim style preparations. But… location will often dictate what kind of food a restaurant offers. If you’re in Tucson, Arizona, you’re probably running a steakhouse, not a seafood operation.
MG: Given your skills and expertise, and your knowledge of knives, what would you say are the three essential knives that any at-home cook should have in the kitchen, and why?
DH: A chef knife, a boning or utility knife, and a paring knife. The chef knife is what you’re going to use for 80% of your work, but it’s a big, long knife.
But any time you’re getting your hands in closer to the food, like when you’re trying to break apart chickens, fish and things like that, you’re going to need something smaller and thinner to work in and around the bone. For most of us, that is a boning knife. Even though most people buy products already in fillet form, you’re still going to need that secondary knife for when you’re getting in closer to your hands.
A paring knife should be used for anything you’re doing off of the cutting board, like taking the greens off the strawberry tops. When you’re working close to the knife, [you need to be able to hold] it in a completely different position. A paring knife is generally held with the blade facing you—a completely different grip than the chef or boning knives.
MG: When you hold a knife in your hand, how do you judge the quality of it? What are some indicators you look for?
DH: When I hold a knife, I use a standard pinch grip that any chef would. We place the thumb on one side of the blade and the forefinger on the other side so that we have better control. The biggest thing I’m looking for is something so comfortable that I don’t notice it. The best knife for me is when I pick it up and don’t even think about or really notice it in my hand because I’m completely focused on what I’m cooking.
MG: You’ve had a long relationship with Master Grade; of all the products, do any stick out for you as your favorites or ones that you think are exceptional?
DH: Master Grade has made sharpeners over the years, and I like their MG 5001, which is their large sharpener with the sandpaper wheels and foam backing. We sharpen knives as a service to customers here, and that one does a tremendous job.
Many knife sharpeners give what I call a quick, dirty edge with a lot of micro serrations. Most consumers say, “This works great because now I can cut through a tomato again.” But this is not a smooth cut for a chef. If you’re cutting through meat and protein an edge with a lot of micro serrations just doesn’t do a good job.
Master Grade also has some little diamond wheels that you can put on it. We purchased those so that we could take care of our customers who use ceramic knives. We’ve tried a lot of different things for sharpening ceramics prior to this. The wheels are expensive, but we decided to give them a try. And it’s like, “holy crap—it’s nice to have something that works.”
We’ve tried Chef’s Choice and others recommended by magazines. They claim to be the best sharpeners out there, but they’re really not. What those sharpeners do is generate a lot of high-speed chatter if you drag the knife through. In other words, the knife just bounces at a really high rate of speed because the ceramic wheels are spinning so quickly. If you try to put any pressure on it so that the knife isn’t chattering its way through, the motor just bogs down. So they really just do a terrible job.
Master Grade makes a smaller one that performs a little bit better than the Chef’s Choice. However, it has a heck of a lot better price point. And their larger one will actually sharpen a knife properly.
Of all the different products, the sharpeners have been our favorites. I only sell two knife sharpeners and they’re both Master Grade.
What’s your favorite Master Grade knife?
DH: The I.O. Shen knife is a new release they brought to us. The big thing that attracted me to I.O. Shen is that they have some very unique shapes we don’t see in any other line of knives. They have one fillet knife designed specifically for breaking down fish.
Often times, a seafood chef’s favorite knife is what we call a breaking knife. It’s a knife designed for the meat industry to break the primal cuts out of a hanging side of beef. They are semi-flexible, curved and have a thinner blade. Rental knife-sharpening services pick these knives up every week, run them through an electric grinder and bring them back in sharpened condition. But it doesn’t take long before you simply have an extremely thin and fairly strong knife. Once it gets to that point, it’s a perfect fillet knife and we generally try to sneak them away and tell the rental company not to throw it away because. “This one’s mine; quit sharpening it; we’re just going to keep it.”
I.O Shen makes a knife of that shape, but it functions much better because it was designed for that purpose. The angles on it are much better, so that knife is going to be a favorite for anybody who has to break down whole fish.