The Other Chef Knife: The French Chef Knife

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"Beauty in Form and Function"
You like to cook, maybe you like knives.  Hey, it could be both.  You see german chef's knives (Wusthof, Dick, Henckels), you see Santokus (Global, Shun, Sekiryu).  Maybe you already own a good one of both, or you're looking for something different.  Then, something catches your eye. Sabatier High-Carbon French Chef knife.  French chef, what's that?  You, my friend, have come across one of the oldest styles of chef's knives in use today.  Congratulations.  You've met the French Chef Knife.

The French Chef Knife

The french chef knife was first found in the form it's found in today in the early to mid-1800s.  Just about every french restaurant in the world will have at LEAST one of these knives, and the most famous maker today (and of the last 100 years) is Sabatier.  A fine Sabatier french chef knife is (at least I think) worth it's weight in gold.  It's also my absolute favourite knife.  In fact, I have two of them.  I have a Sabatier 4-Star high carbon stainless, and I also have a Nicole Tableware High Vanadium stainless knife.  They are FANTASTIC.  If you're bored with your other knives, I highly suggest you pick one up.

Physical Characteristics

The following is a typical French Chef Knife.
  A Nicole Tableware Professional Series Forged French Chef Knife
Note the long, very flat, very thin blade, full tang (the knife is a single forged piece that extends all the way through the handle), and full bolster (the thickened part of the blade where it attaches to the handle).  The french chef knife classically has three brass rivets that attach the handle material (these days, wood, POM, or hardened plastic) to the tang.  If you're thinking "Hey, I've seen that blade before", you're probably right.  The classic carving knife is an evolution of this form, and it is also very similar to the Japanese Sashimi knife.
In terms of other chef's knives, the blade on a French chef is about half the width of the blade found on a German chef knife or a Santoku (if you'd like more info, you can check out my other guide on the Santoku).  This makes the knife VERY light.  Compared to a German chef knife, a French chef knife of the same length (generally 8") will be about one-half to two-thirds the weight.  It also tends to have a very small, rounded handle (opposed to an oval), and a very thick, full bolster.

The steel of a french chef knife is generally very similar to a german chef knife - high carbon/vanadium steel.  It generally has a slightly higher carbon content, making it stronger.  This is because the knife is thinner, so it needs to be stronger to prevent damage from bending the blade.  This also leads to the knife being able to take and keep a sharper edge, but it also makes the knife rust a little faster.  This knife needs some babying.

Using the French Chef Knife

Holding the French Chef
A french chef knife is held exactly the same way as a german chef knife.  The point of optimum balance is just forward of the bolster (the part that attaches the blade and handle) so that's where your thumb and forefinger pinch.  The bolster provides a natural balance point for the third finger to rest, just like a typical chef knife.
How to hold a french chef knife.

The French Chef Knife in the Kitchen

What it Can Do

When you use a typical chef knife or santoku, you generally use it to chop.  This means that you either rock the blade back and forth, or lift it straight up and down so that you're slicing down into the food, using the weight of the knife.  This is a simple, efficient way to cut food, but it tends to lack fine control.

The french chef (similar to a Japanese Sashimi knife) is designed to slice food, and slice on the draw.  This knife is meant to cut by placing the back end of the blade in the food and pulling the knife back towards you.  While not as efficient as a chop, it provides absolute control of the size and shape of the piece cut, making this knife fantastic for use on delicate items (such as soft fruit and vegetables, raw meats or fish) doing decorative knife work, or carving (a turkey or roast).  This need for control is why the knife is so light.  It's very easy to move the knife exactly the way you want it to.  The blade is long enough that you can do much larger tasks such as cutting up melons (such as carving up a watermelon) or breaking down large pieces of meat (such as a beef loin).  The blade and edge are also generally tough enough that you don't have to worry that much about damaging it.

What it Can't Do

One thing this knife doesn't do well is chop.  The light weight and relatively thin blade means that you need to put much more force behind chopping things like vegetables.  You can, however, slice vegetables such as carrots and celery, and this knife works fantastic for it (running the knife back through instead of straight down).

The Beauty of the French Chef

The great advantage of this knife is that it is very easy to use.  The drawing or pulling motion is much more natural for the arm (since it spreads the force of the movement across the entire arm  and sholder), and the the knife is very light.  This is in contrast to the chopping motion, which puts the majority of force on the forearm.   This means that a french chef knife is very comfortable to use for long periods of time before fatigue sets in.  This can be an absolute god-send when working in a busy professional kitchen or preparing a large family dinner.

Getting A French Chef Knife

The one major issue in a French Chef knife is obtaining one.  Because it's not as multi-purpose as a german chef or santoku, it's generally very rare to find one in a typical home goods store.  You're going to have to do some eBay, catalogue or website shopping.  That said, here are a couple good brands to watch out for:

Sabatier (France)

Dumont (France)

Cutco (USA)

Nicole Tableware (Portugal)

Well, that's about it.  Try a French Chef today, you won't be disappointed!

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