I agree with both Benuser and Phatch - though I would expand it a bit.
You need to look at the combination as being (1) knives; (2) sharpening process; and (3) cutting surface.
For the ensemble, the first question is, what is your budget?
For knives, you list 3 knives - a chef's knife/santoku, a serrated knife and a paring knife, Those are pretty much the basic three, so let's start with each.
Ignore matching the knives by brand - you want best bang and performance for the buck, so you should be choosing each knife individually. But if you can get something better and cheaper by buying some sort of set, that can also work.
Chef's knife/santoku - the main question here is what size. And I would end up suggesting a chef's knife, rather than a santoku. Santoku's only go up in length to 170 mm (less than 7 inches) - and a little bit longer will really help, especially with bigger items, such as heads of lettuce. This is going to be your workhorse knife, so don 't limit yourself for future use by buying too short. I have hefted as big as 320 mm, as well as 270 mm, 240 mm and 210 mm, but I find the 240 to 250 mm length for the blade is a comfortable length for working through bulk cutting as well as smaller volumes of prep work, especially when using a pinch grip.. I would not suggest anything below 210 mm, especially for a good quality gyuto (Japanese version of a chef's knife).
The style you choose depends on how you cut. Knives with German profile patterns have a significant "belly" with a pronounced sweep of the edge upwards as that edge approaches the tip. French pattern knives are a straighter edge profile. Japanese gyutos tend much more towards the French pattern than towards the German pattern. Personally, I prefer the "French" style, which works well with a purchase involving gyutos.
The relative thickness of the blade is mostly an aspect of the quality of the steel. Better steel results in a thinner knife, and much less effort in cutting.through materials. Think "butternut squash" and you will realize that veggies are not necessarily easier to cut through than meats.
And that brings up stamped vs. forged vs. machined. It really doesn't matter, except in the minds of knife marketers and sellers. What matters are the initial steel quality, the heat treatment (annealing, quenching and tempering) of the blade and the degree of quality control in the post-heat treatment finishing of the knife. Some of the best budget knives are stamped and machined, rather than forged. And a lot of people prefer their knives not to have thick bolsters at the heel end of the blade, thank you (those thick bolsters simply get in the way of properly sharpening your knife.
If you have very little in your budget fpr a chef's knife (say, under $35), you can buy a 10 inch Victorinox (also formerly marketed as Forschner) chef's knife with fibrox handle (fancy way of saying molded plastic). It's a basic knife found in commercial kitchens and restaurants throughout the world. The steel is "X50CrMoV15" - the same steel used in Wusthof's better knives and as used in almost all of the better German knives. Hardness is around 56 hRc (Rockwell hardness standard) - which is on the low end of acceptable. The saving grace is price and widespread availability'
For about $5 more, the Wusthof "Pro" line offers better heat treatment of the same steel. It's also a knife aimed at the commercial market, but the handle can be problematic or downright difficult to use when trying to use a pinch grip. It's hard to find. The saving grace(?) is that Wusthof hardens their better steel knives to 58 hRc (even 2 points difference can make a significant difference).
After those two lines, most of the rest of the mass-market knives are just variations on a theme. More expensive, but either same steel or lesser quality steel.
And then there are Japanese knives. Here, I am going to bring up the "usual suspects" in budget high-quality Japanese knives. And there are three suspects. All are gyutos. All are available under $100 for at least the 210 mm length, and some are available in 240 mm length for under $100. The three suspects are: (1) Tojiro DP; (2) Fujiwara FKM and (3) Richmond Artifex (actually, American-made, and available through the on-line retailer of Chef Knives To Go).
Any one of those 3 knives will end up giving you a quality product capable of giving you decades of good service, provided yiou have and use sharpening tools and have and use an appropriate cutting surface.
For a serrated-edge knife, just head to a local to you restaurant supply store and buy a serrated bread knife ($15 to $20). Victorinox (with fibrox handle) is the preferred, but Dexter Russell Sani-Safe will also do. Unless you have a way to specifically sharpen serrated edge knives, you are better off just buying an inexpensive commercial knife and replacing it when it gets dull. That's what a lot of chefs do.
For a paring knife, either you go cheap (Victorinox fibrox handle - under $7) or you go pricey - $40 for the Tojiro DP paring knife, or $60 for the MAC Professional line paring knife.
You will need a honing rod and a separate means to sharpen your knives. Honing rods (the misnomer name is "sharpening steel") do not sharpen - they re-align the microscopic edge of your knife and push the cutting edge back to vertical. Otherwise, the pushed-over edge has a lot more resistance when you try to cut. Honing rods, however, really don't sharpen a dull knife - but they will delay the amount of time between sharpenings Honing rods need to be harder than the steel in the knife they are honing. Otherwise, both honing rod and knife WILL be damaged. Since Japanese knives use steels which are harder than European honing rods made from steel, a ceramic rod (harder than the steels used in Japanese knives) is needed. For a honing rod, my stock response is to get a 12 inch Idabone ceramic rod ($30). Save yourself future aggfravation and get the 12 inch length. The primary quibble is that you need to be careful not to drop the hone - it is brittle and can shatter.
That still leaves sharpening. Sharpening involves the removal of metal - which the honing rod really doesn't do to any significant extent. First see Benuser's post above and the link in it. If you need more information about sharpening, read Chad Ward's book, An Edge In The Kitchen. Published in 2008, prices are really dated - but the information is good. To save money, see if you can read it at your local library, or through inter-library loan (sorry, Chad!). Also, look at videos on-line from Jon Broida of Japanese Knife Imports.
The basic minimum is a general stone - 800 to 1200 grit. Plenty of recommendations out there - just read through posts Then go ahead and practice.
An initially pricier alternative is the Edge Pro Apex, starting at $165. But it will reduce your learning curve in sharpening, compared to freehand sharpening. And the stone will cost less, since the stones for the Edge Pro are much smaller than stones used in freehand sharpening.
The final recommendation is for a good cutting surface. I will recommend you look at the recent review by Kokopuffs of his new hard maple end grain board made by The BoardSmith. $100, but good sized (18" x 12" x 2") and a quality surface that will protect the edges of your knives for decades, provided that it is properly treated (I suggest food-grade mineral oil - I get mine from my local Safeway supermarket for $3.49 per pint).
That does tally up to several hundred dollars, but it's a sound set going beyond just the knives and covering all the bases.
Hope that helps
Edited by Galley Swiller - 1/19/14 at 7:59pm