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  • How to Build Your First Knife Kit for Culinary School

    August 13, 2021 6 min read

    How to Build Your First Knife Kit for Culinary School

    I remember my first day of culinary school like it was yesterday. Few times have I been more excited to start something new, feeling such a unique combination of anticipation, nerves, and joy. We didn’t actually cook anything on the first day; we just got fitted for our whites, toured the kitchens, met the chefs, and purchased our books and knives. We also had to buy those paper chef’s hats made with the structural integrity of a coffee filter, but my therapist has advised I don’t revisit that particular memory.

    Already a knife nerd at the age of 20 — and always prepared to go against the grain — I figured I could build a knife kit that was more my style, with fancier tools, and for a similar price the school was charging. I hopped on the #1 bus, and off I went to Knifewear to stock up!

    A chef's knife kit can tell you a lot about them: What kind of food they cook, how well they care for their tools, and of course, what kind of knives they like.

    At this point, you’re probably expecting me to wax poetic about hand-forged carbon steel knives and the joy they brought me at culinary school. I won’t. The truth is, I did own two fancy knives already: a Moritaka Ishime 240mm Gyuto and a Masakage Koishi 165mm Nakiri, but the tiny shred of common sense I possessed then told me I probably shouldn’t bring them to school. Nice things tend to go missing, and sharp knives have a habit of getting grabbed by folks who want to use them for silly things like cutting through bone and opening bottles. No, I grabbed a couple of plain, reliable, but still very high-performance Tojiro DP knives and a smattering of chef's tools to round out my school kit.

    See, Tojiro recognizes that ultra-fancy knives aren’t suitable for every situation. Sure, they make some fancy knives, but their bread-and-butter is the unassuming DP line. Made from VG10 stainless steel, these babies keep a crazy sharp edge for ages but don’t rust and don’t chip nearly as easily as other Japanese knives. This makes them perfect for young students on a budget. They also blend in with the standard culinary school fare and don’t usually walk away on their own, but still stand out enough you can recognize your knives in a pile of others.

    The most useful tool a chef can have is a 240mm gyuto. For the first few years, as you make peanuts in exchange for experience, this knife will function as your chef’s knife, slicer, nakiri, santoku, and probably several other shapes, all in one. Pair it up with a 90mm to 120mm petty knife for small tasks, a boning knife for butchery class, and an affordable bread knife and you’ve got it made! These will handle every task a professional kitchen throws your way and you can gradually upgrade to fancy shiny new knives. Think of them as your scout badges for learning new skills and growing in your new industry.

    Over the years, your kit will grow and change alongside you. This is Knifewear founder Kevin Kent's knife bag from back in the day, with some more recent upgrades.

    But knives alone do not a knife kit make. When we discuss knife kits, we’re talking about the bag (duh), the knives (double duh), but also all of the small tools that chefs need to get through a day of work. These tools aren’t supplied by every restaurant you work at, and when they are, I often found them worn out, the quality lacking, or the best ones would just get snatched (please, don’t steal from restaurants). Restaurants have a lot to think about and operate on slim margins. Dropping $30 per fish spatula isn’t always top of mind for them.

    Every chef will give you a slightly different answer, but most agree that your kit should absolutely have the following: 

    • A honing rod. Your knives are only as good as their edge, and dull knives are dangerous. Use this guy multiple times per shift to keep them in tip-top shape.
    • Sharpening stones. While they may not live in your bag, every cook should be able to sharpen their knives once they start to go dull. If you’re looking to start cheap, grab the basic Knifewear combination stone to get started, and check out these articles on knife-sharpening.
    • Blade guards. They protect your knives, but they also protect you.
    • An affordable, reliable paring knife that can be easily replaced. This will be your pocket knife for opening boxes of fresh produce, as well as a frequent companion for preparing your Mise en Place. Kuhn makes a very affordable one made from fantastic steel.
    • A razor-sharp peeler. These make blasting through cases of carrots and potatoes much easier when you’ve got 20 other tasks to complete by lunch.
    • A good spoon. Many chefs have extensive spoon collections built over the years, but my absolute favourite so far is the Gestura spoon. Designed by chefs, it’s perfect for saucing plates, basting, stirring, and tasting. It ever measures an exact tablespoon!
    • A basic Microplane. Since the 90s, these woodworking tools turned kitchen staples have been zesting lemons, shredding garlic, and making fluffy clouds of parmesan for your caccio e pepe.
    • A solid spatula. Most kitchens will supply these, but they’re often hefty, and I always found the good ones got snagged before I could get to them. I used my own more often than you’d think.
    • If you end up working in a seafood restaurant or you live on the coast, consider grabbing fish tweezers, a fish scaler, and an oyster knife.
    • Tweezers. Some chefs scoff at them; others live by them. Most restaurant cooking doesn’t require tweezers, but I find them very handy for getting pickles and other items out of jars. I also have fat fingers and struggle with precise plating. If you suffer from this too, consider grabbing a pair.

    A small, but well-curated selection of tools will allow you to tackle any task the kitchen throws your way!

    As for the bag itself, start with something basic and reliable. While I do like to rock a fancy leather bag, and it makes me feel like a rockstar, I’d suggest starting with something unassuming like the Knifewear 7-piece bag or, if you’re a gearhead like me, the 18-piece bag. Both are sturdy, feature plenty of storage space, and fly under the radar. We put our name on them for a reason. If you want to kick it old-school, grab a canvas knife roll from Horace and Jasper.

    There’s also a handful of other gear we don’t sell that you’ll find equally handy in your kit:

    • Sharpies. Bring several, but don’t leave them lying around. These get used for labelling everything.
    • Pens & notebooks. Take notes on everything. Even if you end up leaving the kitchen life behind as I did, that scribbled, grease-stained grimoire will help you impress dinner guests in your old age.
    • Band-aids. Kitchens can be dangerous, and sometimes first aid kits can be lacking. 
    • Tylenol. Nothing kills your focus like a headache, and it might help you make friends if a fellow staff member was out late the night before.

    Most of all, pack a good attitude. This sounds dumb, but it’s very true. Kitchens are amazing places full of inspiration, but they can also be a challenging, gruelling environment that can wear on a person. Look out for your fellow cooks, build the team spirit and keep each other in a positive headspace. Show up early and prepared, be a team player, and check in on your coworkers from time to time. Making friends will be one of the most valuable skills in your career.

    Lastly, I just want to wish you luck. Cooking school was by far some of the most fun I had in my 20’s, and I still stay in touch with many of the folks I met years ago. The connections I made there opened doors for me, and no doubt still would if I continued cooking professionally. I will always miss the restaurant industry; it’s a crazy place full of fascinating people, beautiful ingredients, and unreal opportunities. Keep your head up, stay humble, and focus on your goals. With patience and hard work, you’ll get there.