Your questions are very intriguing and I'm just dying to put together a fantasy knife set for you. However, you'll probably be happier if you make your own choices after you've graduated from culinary school and have some idea of what demands work will place on your knives, which blade profiles you prefer, what types of steel, and how you're going to sharpen.
That you mentioned sharpening in the same post as a "cost no object" set of knives is a very good sign. At some point you're going to learn to "freehand" sharpen on bench stones. For a pro, this is the best method because it allows so much flexibility in edge profiles and stone choices. At this point, the best stones for most advanced purposes are the Shapton GS (glass stone) series. They are not inexpensive and they require some maintenance, but they produce an edge faster, and with more polish than their nominal grit ratings would lead you to believe.
If you get mid or high end Japanese knives, I'd suggest 500# and 1000# stones as starters. However, if you get the kind of knives you should get for school, I'd suggest something a little more basic like a Norton IB-8 combination (Coarse and Fine India) and an 8" Hall's hard Arkansas stone, used dry, rather than with water or oil.
There are a few brands of knives which are especially suitable for school. One of them is MAC, as already mentioned and recommended by adamm. Mac makes five different lines of western style knives. They're light, easy to sharpen, easy to keep sharp, great profiles -- almost as good as Elephant and K-Sabatier -- and with a handle everyone loves. They're not perfect. A little too flexible, there are more advanced knife steel formulae, and many people prefer a bolster. Ideal school knives though, if you can afford them. The next best choice is Forschner. I can't recommend the Forschner chef's knife though, it's a lousy profile. Forschners are comfortable, inexpensive, sharpen easily and dull easily too.
The MACs and Forschners I'm going to recommend are all stamped and not forged. It used to be that stamped was never as good as forged. No longer true. However, you will outgrow all of these -- so none are too expensive.
Irrespective of which brand you choose for your student career, I'd suggest the following profiles: 240mm (9-1/2"), 10", or 270mm (10-1/2") cooks/gyuto; 10" or 270mm (10-1/2") slicer or sujibiki; 5" - 6" petty or paring, 6" desosser
(European style boning knife); 9" - 10" bread; and a tourne
aka bec d'oiseau
aka "bird's beak" paring knife.
A few words about some of these profiles: Chef's
Most pros prefer something right around 10" in the chef's knife. Less is considered either special purpose (tight station) or for the smaller handed, shorter cook. In other words, and 8" knife is something of a "girl's knife." The thing about a longer knife is, if you're large enough to use it, you do get more work out of it; and once you learn how to hold it and keep it lined up with your forearm, it's as easy to use as shorter knife -- as long as you've got the hand size and height. Santokus have a similar rep as smaller chef's knives. They're useful for small jobs where pointing the tip is critical, like a brunois of shallots. But it's not the right all-around school knife. Why? Because it's not the right knife to make boxes of mirepoix
-- something you will do. Once you know what you're doing, use what works best for you no matter what anyone says. But until then, go with a 10" knife.
Note: My wife is 5' 2" with small hands, and as soon as she held my 10" chef's, a sixties vintage K-Sab au carbone
, it became "hers." Over the years I've tried several times to buy her her own knife -- some of them very expensive -- but none have stayed. I just keeping working to keep it "ours."
One of the differences between German and Japanese knives which isn't usually discussed as much as it should be is the shape of the belly. German profile knives have a rounded belly and are highly adapted to "rock chop." Japanese knives have a flatter "French profile" and are better at the "push cut" (straight down).
Most cooks trained in European cuisines and techniques use something that mixes elements of rock, push and shear, combining the precision of push with the silence and power of shear. This is the technique I learned, pinch grip and all. It's most likely what they'll try and teach you too.
12" is too long for a general purpose school slicer. Go with 10" or 27cm. If and when you need a longer ham or salmon slicer, get it then. A 30cm (12") or 33cm is a good length for a yanagi, but you're not ready to decide if you even want one yet. With luck, you'll have the chance to see a few used and try them.
There's no good, reasonably priced MAC slicer. You want something a little dressier than a Forschner, but you don't want to spend a mint. I hesitate to recommend non-stainless carbon, but slicers don't see too much acid, and you always have time to wipe the knife down before you put it away. I also hesitate to recommend the types of knives I use because it's too much like selling my judgment rather than giving you enough information to exercise your own. But this is a knife that gets as sharp as any Japanese knife, stays surprisingly sharp, looks like it came out of Escoffier's kitchen, and is historically significant. This is a knife you'll keep for a life time. I've had a K-Sab just like the "new" K-Sab au carbone
for 35 years. I own a couple of Nogents and can tell you they're incredible.
K-Sab au carbone
10" slicer (Kitchen knives Knives Au Carbone - Vintage Sabatier knives
Sabatier Nogent 10" slicer (Thiers-Issard Sabatier Nogent Carbon-Steel Kitchen Knives
A 5" or 6" knife is useful for paring and utility work. It's small enough to put the point anywhere you want it with precision and large enough to be useful for all sorts of things. The French call this knife couteau office
which means everyday knife. You'll open packages, cut string, score fish skin, core fruit, do fine butchering, you name it. Don't short yourself with a little knife that's only suitable for peeling apples. If you feel you absolutely need a sub 4" knife, get a Forschner Rosewood for $8. .
MAC HB-55, and
The European shape is the desosser
. It's sometimes called a fillet knife It's a narrow blade with a tightly rounded point leading to a pointed tip. The meat industry standard is the Forschner Fibrox, partly because it can go into dishwashers -- something you don't have to worry about. This shape of knife is sold in a variety of flexes. Stiff and medium (or unrated) are for meat and poultry.
It's an incredible knife for boning out large pieces of meat. The tight radius on the point lets you get the handle at some bizarre angles and keep cutting, the thin blade lets you turn the knife to trace a bone without cutting a wide kerf. No Japanese shape can touch this knife when it comes to that type of work.
I don't much care for the shape for poultry. I, like a lot of other guys, break and joint with a chef's knife, and bone with a petty. Of course, you'll learn to do it the way you're taught.
Flexible is for fish. As a fish knife it's technically called a Swedish or Finnish or Scandinavian Fillet, but I don't know how often you'll hear that Again, I don't particularly care for the shape with fish. I use a French shape fillet knife -- which is pretty much a utility shape.
I wouldn't run out and buy a fish knife until you find out how much you're going to need one and which type is most popular with your instructors. Get that one, it makes "monkey see, monkey do" much easier.
As for your general purpose boning knife -- whether you buy top quality depends on how much you're going to use it. It's really hard to do better than a MAC Superior in this shape at any price. The F. Dick or the Global maybe -- but they're expensive. Forschner Fibrox is the industry standard. Forschners are very good, most def. They can be made very sharp very easily, but unfortunately they dull quickly -- even cutting meat. I HATE the Fibrox handles -- Rosewood is much nicer and if you're not a commercial butcher you don't have to meet NSF standards so you can use Rosewood. I'd either take the MAC or the Forschner to school.
MAC BNS-60, or
Special purpose. You need it. All there is to it. You don't have to spend a lot. Get a Forschner. When you figure out how to sharpen it, junk it and get something better. In the meantime just keep replacing the Forschner with another.
MAC makes the best bread and cake knife at anywhere near the price. The industry standard. Pretty reasonable, too. Last bread knife you'll buy for 10 years.
You get a lot of opinions here and some of them are very unclear except what the writer likes best. When most people say "German knives," they include German, Swiss, and American (Lamson). Somehow, the French are excluded. Actually, the better Sabatiers compare very well with the other high-end European and American knives. As a class you get the best fit and finish. German chef's knives are somewhat clumsy compared to good French and Japanese knives.
Most "German" manufacturers use one of two types of stainless steel in their high-end knives. X45CrMoV and X50CrMo. The French use something similar. These steels are somewhere between almost equal and not nearly as good as the steels used in in the mid and high-end Japanese knives. But Japanese knives are more expensive -- or in a similar price range their F&F is usually inferior.
Wusthof gets bandied about as THE BRAND, but the reality is that when comparing comparable lines head to head F. Dick, Messermeister, Henckels, Victorinox (forged), Wusthof, and Lamson are all pretty much equal. The biggest difference might be handle colors. Try Before You Buy
There are no words to tell you what a crock this is. You can't wave a knife around for two minutes or pretend to chop and expect to learn how you're going to feel about it six months down the line. Not only that, but a lot of the cues that say "quality" like heft are qualities that don't wear well. Furthermore, the most important qualities in a knife are edge taking and edge holding -- and the only way you can find out about from those is through experience -- yours or someone whom you trust. What can I tell you? Don't worry about what they have and don't have at the mall. Watch out for boutique knives or Japanese knives with reputations for bad handles. If you're seriously considering a boutique brand, let me know and I'll get you on the Knife Forum or Fred's Cutlery on the Foodie Forum, so you can talk to people who've used the knife.
Hold off on the lifetime set. You may or may not know enough about knives, but you don't know enough about yourself yet.
Hope this helps,