My big question for the group - how do you select knives to order without trying them out?
That's a good question and it gets asked a lot and in a lot of different ways too.
The more you know about knives in general and your own particular needs and preferences the easier it is to glean what you want to know from other people's experiences and recommendations. That's not usualy (ever?) the case for someone looking for her or his first quality knives.
To make matters worse, another depressing dimension to the dilemna is how little you actually learn from in-store trials. About all you can be sure of is that a very uncomfortable handle will probably remain so over time. But, perceptions about qualities like "heft" and "balance" are notoriously deceptive.
Speaking of heft and balance, nearly all western style, Japanese manufactured knives are much lighter than their western manufactured counterparts. Also, with the exception of Global, balance tends to be pretty consistent and depends a lot more on whether the knives are made with or without "bolsters" than on brand.
There are two major knife boards, the Knife Forum and Fred's Cutlery Forum with a lot of people -- some of them knowledgeable -- eager to help. But again, most of the advice you'll get is of limited utility; of the "I bought this and like it so you should buy it too" sort. That is, they tend to seek validation of their own decisions without taking your particular situation into account. You have to sort through the noise to get to the data. Without knowing the players, it isn't easy.
Yet more complication. Unless you live near one of a very few knife stores, few if any good Japanese knives are available for an in-store demo anyway.
Which leaves you exactly... where? Nowhere wonderful.
Sharpening - I have experience with non-culinary knives (tacticals, utility knives, chisels etc) on a stone, but I have never sharpened Japanese cutlery.
That's good. No. That's great. Learning to freehand kitchen knives won't be much of a problem for you.
Japanese knives of the sort in which you're interested want waterstones. You already know enough about sharpening not to need a starter kit. If you don't mind dropping a couple of bucks: Beston 500; Bester 1200; and Arashiyama (6000) ought to cover almost any knives you buy. If you're on a tight budget: Naniwa Omura (200ish); and large King 1K/6K combo.
In addition you'll need a synthetic nagura (cheap) and a strategy for flattening. A lot of guys use special flattening plates up to and including a DMT XXC ($90) or even a Shapton iron plate (can go way more than $200). I use drywall screen which is a little slower and messier -- but a lifetime supply will set you back maybe $15.
Shun Premier being the favorite I have tried in hand, Hiromoto from JCK being the other I have in mind.
My feeling is that the three most important areas to look at are profile, edge characteristics and handles. An important criterion with chef's knife profiles is whether you prefer the German over the French (and Japanese) type, or vice versa. And of course, you're rather new to the game and don't know.
I use, prefer and recommend the French (which includes almost all western style Japanese knives) for its greater agility and economy of movement. You lose a little power, but sharpness trumps power every time. So as long as you keep your knives sharp (which few cooks do), you should be good.
The Shun chef's knife has an absolutely horrible profile. Not just German but the worst of German... at least in my opinion. Because of their particularly high point (well above the midline), you have to lift the handle way up to get it the tip down on the board; and because of the curve (aka "belly") you have to get the handle way down in order to get the heel on the board. That means a lot of what I call "pumping" the handle in order to "rock chop" (which is what trained western cooks do, one way or the other and you probably do as well on the way to julienne and dice).
Shuns have decent edge characteristics; and you've experienced the handle.
My perception is that given the choice most skilled cutters prefer French. But a lot of people like German. And you can certainly become comfortable with either and make it work brilliantly.
Which Hiromoto? AS or G3? What about them do you find attractive?
The AS inspires a lot of positive response. A few years ago I bought four of them -- his and her chef's knives, slicer, petty -- a few years ago with the idea of upgrading and updating some of my old French carbons with Japanese steel. But neither Linda nor I liked the Hiromotos enough to keep, even though it cost more than a few bucks to move them on. The dissatisfaction centered around disliking the feel of the chef's knives on the board. For one thing, it turns out that I don't like the feel of any "cladded" knife -- an objection which probably doesn't apply to you. Just as important, neither of us thought the profile was anywhere nearly as good as any of my old carbon Sabatiers.
It's worth repeating that a lot of people really, really like them.
FWIW, Hiromoto handles are narrowish and not particularly long. Whether or not that's important to you I don't know. Is it?
What do you need to know in order to consider other knives that aren't yet at the top of your list?
If you're seriously considering the Hiromoto AS with it's Aogami Super carbon (as opposed to stainless) hagane (core), would you consider other carbon knives?
If it's any comfort, it's no great trick to restrict my recommendations to chef's knives with handles EVERYONE likes.
Before going on though, I'd like to hear what you think about what I said so far. Please don't be shy about asking questions about specific knives.
Hope this helps,
Edited by boar_d_laze - 11/29/10 at 10:32am