I know a lot of chefs in high end places who use high end (and expensive) knives. In fact, most of the chefs I know in high end places, use expensive knives. I also know pros (online) who consider themselves "knife experts,"using inexpensive knives, sharpening with "diamond steels" once a day, and only really sharpen their knives a couple of times a year. As many times as I've been involved in these type of threads, I wonder whether many among the second group really know what a sharp knife is.
In my opinion what makes one knife worth more money than another in a line and heavy prep situation are edge characteristics, wear characteristics and comfort.
Victorinox / Forschner is pretty much as cheap as you can go and still get (what I'd consider) a decent knife. They really are a lot of knife for the money, and are usable. They get fairly sharp fairly easily, but don't hold their edges well. If you want to get better than "decent," you'll have to go Japanese or high-end German. The Fujiwara, Togiharu and Tojiro DPs mentioned are very much bottom of the top end. They'll out-perform a Forschner sure, but they are not as good as more expensive blades.
Petty and paring knives are not quite the same thing. If you're going to use a short parer for peeling, opening packages, cutting string, etc., you certainly can go Forschner. In fact, given the short lifetime of the small blades (they disappear from sharpening) cheapness is a real virtue. I like the fine-edged Rosewood series, but a friend of mine swears by the disposable serrated Forschners with the plastic handles. You just want something you can get sharp.
On the other hand, if you're going to use a petty for paring, boning, shallots, and all the other smaller knife tasks -- you'll want something a little better. I have a 4-3/4" Forschner Rosewood parer, but it's nowhere near as useful as my 6" petties. They're just different. You want something you don't have to sharpen several times a shift and Forschners unfortunately can't do that. Getting my first 6" petty (actually, an old carbon Sabatier Nogent "slicer") changed the way I (ex-pro, long time home cook) do prep and very much for the better.
I know it seem confusing, but don't panic. In most line positions, you'll use your chef's 90% of the time. The big exceptions are boucher (butchering prep), poisson (fish), pastry and garde (cold pantry). The petty really steps up for boucher and garde. Poisson can be its own world. Let's put off talking about that as long as possible.
Speaking of petties, you probably don't need anywhere near as many knives as you seem to think you do. So you can save some money there. Invest in a decent (or better) Japanese chef's knife, a decent Japanese petty, and Forschner (Rosewood or Fibrox) for your bread and slicer. With the yen/dollar rate of exchange going nuts, you should plan on spending around $100 (or even more) for your chef's.
Speaking of money, you'll also need to budget for a sharpening kit. For your first stage, and keeping to a budget, that probably means something like a King 1000/6000 combination waterstone and a Forschner "fine" steel. No oval steels, no medium steels, and no diamond steels, okay padwan?
Unless you're doing a LOT of specialized work, four blades (or so) in your roll is more than adequate. You can save some money right off the bat by not buying everything Michael Symon dreams about. If you need specialized knives, especially butchery knives -- unless you're fabricating a lot of "fine dining" fish -- Forschner (the name keeps coming up) is very good indeed. You probably think you really, really need a European style "boning knife." You don't. Not only is there's very little it does better than a petty (including de-boning, frenching, etc.), they're a pain to sharpen.
If you do go up-market with your chef's (gyuto), you'll also want something inexpensive which laughs at pumpkins, pineapples and bones. I recently got a 10" Forschner cimiter which I can't recommend highly enough not only for meat work but as a "better beater."
While I don't dislike Mundial or other budget clones of classic German knives, I can't recommend them either. They're heavy, the blades are thick, and the knife steel is so soft they lose their edges very quickly. Really, they're more crowbar than scalpel. Some people like heft and don't make a fetish of sharp. More power to them.
If you take away anything from this post, let it be this: Knives are not the largest part of the equation. Learn to sharpen really, really, really (sensing a theme here?), really well. A sharp knife will "fall" through an onion or potato without effort. If it isn't at least that sharp, it's dull and will compromise the speed and quality of your work. Considering what a difference it makes, it's surprising that even in professional kitchens very few cooks know the meaning of "sharp." Try and find someone who does know and can teach you.
Edited by boar_d_laze - 7/6/11 at 5:08pm