Broken down to the basics, it's just a sharpened edge with a handle, a simple tool used since the Stone Age.
But that's like saying a guitar is just a piece of wood with six strings, or Buster Posey's catcher's mitt is merely a hunk of leather.
In the skilled hands of a chef, a favorite knife goes beyond a mere kitchen tool. It's an extension of self and spirit, the equivalent of a samurai sword, the heart and soul of their livelihood.
"These are my babies," said Mike Ward, sous chef at The Kitchen, unveiling a few key knives from his collection on a recent afternoon. "When you appreciate the knife as an extension of your arm, these knives can do amazing things."
Get a few local top chefs in a room together to unfurl the leather-knife rolls and discuss nuances in their choices in cutlery and the ogling starts immediately, over stag-antler handles and blue-steel blades. Calling one of these knives your own means you're dedicated to the highest levels of cooking, where every slice is like a handwritten signature.
They speak of "sweet spots" and custom detailing the way a rock star muses about the sunburst finish on a '59 Les Paul electric guitar. They're willing to spend hundreds of dollars to score that perfect instrument, the one that slices so effortlessly, forever sturdy during the perpetual onslaught of dinner rushes.
Working with a dull blade is like a kitchen insult, that can only mean awkwardly cut vegetables and messy slices of meat.
There's no shortage of options and price points in the marketplace, whether it's an 8-inch chef's knife for all-purpose cooking that costs about $13 at Wal-Mart, or a sleek Nenox Wa-Kiritsuke knife from Japan that's geared for culinary ninjas and costs $500.
Finding the perfect knife can take years of trial and umpteen Band-Aids. Like the soldiers repeating the Rifleman's Creed in "Full Metal Jacket," these chefs might as well say: "This is my knife. There are many like it but this one is mine."
"You don't fear the knife, you respect the knife," said Ward. "I sharpen my knife so that it will hold its edge every day, 14 hours a day in the kitchen."
Japanese knives were the overwhelming favorites used by the chefs we surveyed, prized for their attention to detail and craftsmanship honed over the centuries. Here's more about these chefs and their prized tools of the trade:
Executive chef, Ettore's European Bakery and Restaurant
The plump Messermeister leather bag goes with Depina when it's time to cook, whether he's leading Ettore's kitchen or catering an event. He's known for creating comfort foods with an elevated touch: pappardelle with spicy sausage, thick cuts of teriyaki salmon, fat steaks.
The black bag was given to Depina by his mentor, the late Don Brown of Biba and Silva's Sheldon Inn. Not only does it contain memories of coming of age as a chef, but it houses about a dozen knives of various sizes: peelers, boning knives, a small knife with a thick, dull blade that's perfect for shucking oysters.
One knife takes center stage. In the same way B.B. King plays a favorite guitar called "Lucille," Depina calls this knife "Ped" short for his first name, like the knife is more like a family member than a mere kitchen tool. It's a Japanese chef's knife known as a gyuto and is made by Misono. "Ped" cost Depina about $250, a small investment for a knife that's at the core of his cooking.
"I use it pretty much as my workhorse knife," Depina said. "I use it for anything from fish to vegetables to meat. It's a great all-around chef's knife. My knife has been good to me."
The knife's feel makes it a favorite for Depina. The blade is sharp enough to slice through tuna belly like a lightsaber, but Depina loves the way "Ped" fits in his hand. Comfort is key with any knife choice.
"For me, the handle is where it's at," Depina said. "It fits in the palm really nice and makes all the movements spot-on. Other knives have big handles and you can't grip your fingers around them well. This handle has a nice sweet spot for me."
Depina treats "Ped" with the utmost respect. The knife gets sharpened about every two weeks to keep the blade's cutting capabilities at their prime. When not slicing and dicing with it, he keeps "Ped" in a bag or box never left on a counter where pots and pans might bang into it.
"A lot of people make the mistake of not caring for their knife properly and get a wear on the edge," said Depina. "A dull knife will hurt you faster than a sharp knife. It won't go in smoothly when you're trying to cut into something, and all of a sudden that unstable knife goes through your finger. My knife always treats me good."
Executive chef and owner of Kru
Other chefs might have more knives than Ngo, but one gem from his collection is a showstopper.
He doesn't use this knife for cooking though it's meant for breaking down bluefin tuna and mouths of other chefs go agape when he draws it from its protective sheath.
Witness the steely majesty of Ngo's maguro knife, with a 2-foot blade, bamboo handle and $1,300 price tag.
Another choice Japanese knife from Ngo's collection costs more than $2,000 $1,500 for the blade and $550 for a handle made of silver and stag antler.
His current knife collection numbers 19, but there will never be too many knives. Japanese cooking traditions are especially particular about knives.
"In Western or European cooking, you basically have a chef's knife, a paring knife (for peeling and coring) and a filet-butcher knife," Ngo said. "But if you seriously get into Japanese cooking, they have specific knives for specific ingredients. There's one knife used just for octopus. There's another knife for cutting eel."
Ngo uses two main knives for his cooking at Kru, which deftly fuses Japanese culinary traditions with classic French techniques. One is an yanagi knife made by Nenohi Nenox in Japan, which transforms filleted fish into sumptuous slices of sashimi with a long, thin blade. This knife would cost $3,300 in the United States, but a friend picked up the knife for Ngo directly in Japan for $1,300.
"It's worth it," said Ngo. "This knife will last forever."
For "grunt work," he opts for a Nenohi Nenox yo-deba knife that cost him $385 a relative bargain. A deba is something like a cleaver with a convex blade, which provides extra precision when cutting through meat, fish and other ingredients. He prefers a carbon-steel blend for his knives, which aren't as brittle as traditional Japanese knives and don't stain as easily.
Like the master preparing a new generation of kitchen soldiers, Ngo's been known to gift up-and-coming chefs with his knives.
"I used to have more knives, but I gave some away to chefs who worked under me," Ngo said. "I'm comfortable with what I have for the time being, but I'm always looking to collect."
Sous chef, The Kitchen
Ward is known around the local restaurant community for his near obsession with knives, which are kept in a Craftsman toolbox fitted with rubber matting so the knives won't shift around.
His go-to knife, the one that's used so much that it might as well be a steel-forged appendage, is a Misono UX10. It's a sleek piece of Japanese craftsmanship sharp, light, sturdy with an 8 1/2-inch blade made of Swedish blue steel. Crafting prix-fixe courses at a James Beard-nominated restaurant like The Kitchen calls for this kind of knife.
Ward refers himself a "sharp junkie." In a game of culinary upsmanship, he has a running contest with a fellow chef about who has the sharpest edge. They take turns holding their knives steady in one hand and then moving a thin piece of paper across the blade. The less tearing noise the paper makes, the better.
"If the paper cuts with little, little sound, you know you're ready to do some damage in the kitchen. I used to win this game quite a bit."
He refers to other knives in his collections as "beaters." These knives aren't put on any kind of pedestal, nor is there much worry about keeping them pretty. They're perfect for the grunt work of butchery and other kitchen applications.
"Every chef has their beater knives," Ward said. "Not everything requires a $400 knife."
He dreams of someday visiting Sakai, a Japanese city with a knife-making tradition that goes back centuries. In the meantime, he scours the latest offerings on japanesechefsknife.com and korin.com, a leading importer of high-end Japanese knives.
"Once I got into Japanese knives, it became an addiction," Ward said. "Yeah, I'm pretty geeked out on knives."