This year I decided to spend my birthday money on kitchen stuff that I’ve had my eyes on. I wound up with some awesome kitchen tools and some more books which I’ve been wanting to read and study for a while, among those books was An Edge in the Kitchen: The Ultimate Guide to Kitchen Knives by Chad Ward (affiliate link). Using a 5-star rating method, I’d give it a 4 out of 5; using a 10-star rating method, I’d give it a 7 out of 10.
Chad Ward is a knife nerd, seriously; his kitchen knife expertise makes those of us who frequently use our kitchen knives and already know a moderate amount about them realize that we’ve been playing in the kiddy pool most of our lives. Although his book has quite a bit of “geek speak” in it as it relates to kitchen knives, metallurgy, and whatnot, it’s a pleasure to read and is easy to understand. And, as Chad says, once you learn the terminology you can impress all your friends and the guy behind the knife counter with your wisdom (extra bonus!).
The hard part now is figuring out where to begin…
The Writing Style
Chad Ward has been writing for a long time. According to his blog, about 20+ years, most of it food related. He’s had plenty of time to develop his writing personality and come to grips with just being himself, and it comes out in his writing. It’s fresh and easy to read. He’s taken a potentially dry subject and doused it with a good measure of humor and charisma–at times it’s even a little cheesy, but I didn’t mind. (I’m a little bit goofy myself.) I had a feeling this was going to be the case when I read the back cover, part of which said,
Let’s start with what not to cut on: Glass, ceramic, granite, stainless steel, are all no-nos. They will damage your edges. There’s a special place in hell for people who abuse their knives this way.
First, if that’s true, hell is going to be packed. Second, I agree. I’m very mindful of how my knives are treated.
One of the reasons An Edge in the Kitchen is fun to read is because Chad uses great analogies and metaphors making it easy for nearly anyone to understand why certain practices and methods are important or necessary. Here is one of the many examples:
…buying a big block of knives is like buying one of those sets of leather-bound classic books. […] You get a couple of shelves of books, but you don’t have any control over what ends up in your library. (pg. 13)
An Edge in the Kitchen is so jam packed with useful and appealing information that I found myself wanting to skip around and read pieces of it here and pieces of it there instead of straight through. Skipping around wouldn’t be a problem to quickly gather info, but I wouldn’t recommend it (unless you’ve already read it once straight through) or you’ll miss some fascinating insights, all of which will lead you down the path to cooking stardom.
The book is organized fairly logically into three main parts: Choosing a knife, Using the knife, and maintaining your knife. If you’re looking for a book that strictly shows techniques and how to do things, then as Obi-Wan would put it, this isn’t the book you’re looking for. Although Chad does spend a decent amount of time teaching you how to use your knife (which includes 47 pages of color picture tutorials), most of the book is spent discussing the purchasing and maintaining of your knives. Both are areas that most of us lack serious knowledge, so it’s very beneficial to have such a strong focus on it. We have a good idea of what to look for and do, but Chad removes the doubts and gives you great advice and resources on how to go about the tasks.
Actually, after reading through the entire “Choose Your Weapon” part, I wanted to immediately purchase some more knives, but I was convinced that the ones I currently have are pretty good in their own right–but in need of a good sharpening session to hone the factory angle down a smidgeon.
Chad mentions that the only three knives you need are 1) a quality chef’s knife, 2) a quality paring knife, and 3) a big serrated or scalloped bread knife. At first I was doubtful, so I went over to my knife block (yep, I’ve got a wysiwyg knife block set–yikes!) and did an inventory of the knives I use. I use my santoku for nearly everything and then I use both my paring knives for nearly everything else with exception of cutting bread, which I use my wee-bit short bread knife for. I occasionally use my partoku and slicing knife. I have an 8″ chef’s knife I keep in a drawer (with a guard), that I use frequently as well. I realized not only could I survive with only 3 knives, but I could actually be content that way.
Now, I have a confession to make: I’ve always disliked serrated knives, except when cutting bread. They drive me bonkers, and I much prefer a larger sharp knife (machete anyone?) in the kitchen. Because of marketing hype over the years people seem to think that serrated knives are the shizzle, the bomb-diggety, the “solves all.” In fact, there’s been more than one occasion that I’ve voiced my dislike and have been teased. Each time I promptly ran into the nearest bathroom and cried my eyes out.
I’m glad to know I’ve got a buddy in Chad… from page 56:
They are the plastic ballpoint pens of the knife world. Use it for a couple years, and when it’s no longer sharp, buy a new one.
He also recommends a scalloped edge over a serrated one. No more bathroom cry sessions for me.
Before moving on, you must know that An Edge in the Kitchen gets extra points for providing numerous resources for finding, working with, and maintaining your knives… resources include names, phone numbers, addresses, emails, and more. Very helpful. Even more bonus points for Chad in the thoughtfulness department. Yet even more bonus points for doing an excellent job recommending specific knives, model number and all, for people with small, medium, or bottomless budgets.
Now I know that up to this point this has been a high-praise review–which An Edge in the Kitchen deserves–but to be fair and completely open, I also want to point out three areas that I felt could use some modifications.
There are a number of times that the same information is repeated two, three, or maybe even four times. There are only two reasons that I can think of that this would be the case. The first is to help people understand important information if they’re just picking away at the book here and there, the second (and hopefully not the reason) is that it just wasn’t edited well enough. For someone who reads through from cover to cover (like me) it became an annoyance to hear some of the same advice or clarifications more than once.
Chad does a very decent job of describing with words how to perform certain knife techniques, and there are numerous images, but I felt like the main picture section was actually lacking in pictures. Having spent hundreds of hours in technical writing, I believe a quality picture section should tell the whole story without any need, or at least very minimal need, for explanatory text. Unfortunately, even in the picture sections, there seemed to be more text than pictures. I found myself having to spend more time studying the pictures and reading the text for some areas (such as the down and back motion for dicing an onion) than should be reasonably necessary for a well-written set of picture instructions. Let’s be clear: I’m not saying that this section is bad, because it isn’t, I just feel it could use some additional work.
The third item is that even though the book is very pleasurable to read, I felt it could be less wordy, still be as witty and fun, and still provide all the necessary information. This is difficult to do for many authors, and requires a whole lot more effort, but it makes for excellent, information rich content.
Oh wait, one more thing… I found myself wanting to learn more about a sharpening a convex edge. At one point, it says that he’ll spend more time on it, but I don’t recall it ever doing so. The majority of the sharpening time was spent on compound edges.
Overall, I really enjoyed learning more about my knives from Chad’s book. I’ve always treated my knives like gold (hopefully there’s a special place in heaven for me), but despite that I found numerous areas where I could improve, and absolutely want to. Chad’s book made it easy for me to identify those areas and see the importance of changing my ways.
Through most of the book I pulled out my santoku and chef’s knife and kept them next to me for some hands-on experience. Chad’s writing was clear and understandable which made it fun to hold up my knives and inspect them according to his instructions.
I also pulled out some food and found that with his instructions my abilities immediately improved–almost magically. It sounds silly, but it’s true. Of course I didn’t turn into Superman just by reading his book, but now that I clearly understand more kitchen knife principles, my efficiency definitely leveled up.
Overall, I highly recommend this book for anyone wanting to learn more about their kitchen knives. It’s fun to read and packed with useful information and instruction.
Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your comments below.