At Kitchen Kapers, we love cooking and we love the tools of the trade. During a recent cooking event at our Moorestown, NJ store, we decided to to take our new Chroma Type 301 Knives out for a spin! This stunning cutlery series gets a lot of attention for its looks and design, but there is little first-hand information on what the series is actually like to own and use. Is it performance-oriented for the professional chef, or merely a design-driven series for the style-conscious consumer? Let's begin with an introduction to the Type 301 Series: its design, manufacture and materials.
No, it did not fall off Doc Brown's Delorean
Type 301 cutlery comes to us from the Chroma Company, who is predominately known for selling knives made by small, high-quality Japanese producers. Their Haiku Series, for example are impeccably traditional Japanese blades with pristine wooden handles fixed with Meguki pins. Really nice, really old school blades that we love. But in developing the Type 301 series (loosely named after the blade steel) Chroma wanted, shall we say, a "less traditional" look.
They contracted the famed FA Porsche Design House who promptly recruited help from some of Europe's leading chefs to ensure that their vision would follow function. And what a vision they had. The type 301 has a seamless form of fine-grained stainless steel that looks as though it was somehow carved from a solid block of the stuff. They are drippingly sleek and seemingly created for the professional or those who secretly wish they were. The stark, utilitarian look falls somewhere between modern sculpture and a surgical instrument. We at Kitchen Kapers genuinely find them beautiful, particularly now that we have had the chance to use them for a while, but as with all strong design statements, they seem to provoke a "love it" or "hate it" response. And depending on the angle from which you view it, the handle is...well... hard to get a handle on!
From a straight-on profile (as many of Chroma's stock photos are shot) the handle might seem to end at a narrow point. Only by turning it do you see that the butt of the handle transitions into a horizontally-oriented paddle shape.
Regardless, it is still hard to imagine what a Type 301 feels like to hold and use, and that's a big reason why we wanted to put them to the test and post our findings.
The knives are actually made from two types of steel, 18/10 stainless steel at the handle, while the blade is forged from a proprietary alloy of Japanese 301 steel. The two materials are joined just after the handle melts into the flat of the blade; there is no seam. The "pearl" is a curious feature of Type 301 knives. It's a small, domed peg of 18/10 stainless steel that protrudes from both sides of the handle, very near the blade. It is Porsche's way to "demarcate the transition" from one to the other. The pearl does provide some bearing on where your hand is positioned, but it's too small to get in the way and in use, we largely ignored it. As for the blade, our research found (tip for the day: "our research found" sounds much better than "when we Googled") that Japanese 301 steel is a very good high-strength, high-carbon alloy with very good non-corrosive properties. While 301 steel can achieve a significantly harder state on the Rockwell Scale, Type 301's are tempered to a fairly standard 55-57. (I know the Rockwell Scale is not a report card, and harder is not the same as better. Still, I found myself wondering how the softer edge would stand up to acids and rigorous use) The edges are hand sharpened and honed
While Chroma is typically associated with Japanese producers, Type 301 knives are an amalgamation of Japanese designed blades, German designed handles, Chinese Manufacturing and Japanese materials. We prepped with the 8" chef's knife, 7.25"santoku and 3.25" paring knife. They were picked at random from our stock and used as is, straight from the box (which are also very smart and stylish, by the way). All of the blades we pulled for store displays, demos and testing purposes (about 12 knives total) exhibited excellent finish, were free of defects and had a consistent look. 12 knives is not much of a control group so we can't draw any sweeping conclusions about the quality of manufacturing, but we can say that all of ours seem fine.
Robert Redford's Lamb and Blackbean Chili, and other culinary feats of strength
You can talk and talk and talk about a knife, but you've got to pick one up and use it, if you actually want to learn anything. On this typical October day, we were cooking a rich lamb chili to combat the cooler, mid 50's temperature that was on the way. A recipe that Robert Redford had originally contributed to Paul Neuman's book in 1998 had been re-released in Robb Walsh's The Chili Cookbook. It first caught my eye because we had a gorgeous domestic lamb shoulder from La Frieda Meats waiting in the freezer, just begging to be cooked. And as I read the recipe I could tell that it would be great. Sometimes flavor combinations go so well together that you can taste them by spoken word alone! Besides, if it's good enough for the Sundance Kid, it's plenty good for me. The veg prep for the chili was not quite substantial enough for the cutlery test, so we added some extra prep exercises to make a more thorough evaluation. Our Cutlery Test Course included the following tasks:
- Out of the box paper test #1
- Bone out/trim lamb shoulder: we cheated a bit here and used our Victorinox boning and 12" cimitar to bone most of it out because, let's face it, that's what they are for. But the Type 301 Chef's knife did help a bit and the deboned meat was trimmed, sliced and diced entirely by the chef's knife and santuko. Note: If the Type 301 Chef's Knife I tested was my own, I would have not been concerned about using it more.
- Dice carrots
- Dice Celery
- Dice Onion
- Brunoise shallot
- Fillet bell peppers
- Julienne Bell Peppers
- The tomato test: the bottom third is sliced from a regular tomato and the larger piece is placed cut side down on the board. Without holding the tomato, the knife should be able to cut thin, horizontal slices without moving the tomato on the board.
- Dice tomatoes
- Chop scallions
- Chop herbs
- Chiffonade basil/mint
- Paper test #2
- Hone with Steel (the only steeling allowed during the test)
- Paper test #3
But before talking about cutting performance, let's start at the beginning. I think everyone's first curiosity about the series is if the Porsche-designed handles are actually comfortable and functional in use, or if they're more about looks.
Picking up the Type 301 chef's knife felt a little uncertain at first. Holding it in a loose hand, waving and rolling it about, I felt very aware that the handle and blade are essentially the same hunk of metal. Any vibrations coming off the blade seemed to travel to the fingers, and if you tap the flat it will let out a small, dull ring. It felt okay, but certainly different and maybe a tad clunky. Then I noticed, with a small adjustment that I could let my fingers drop away from my index finger and the Type 301 turned to its side and self-balanced on my index finger, just behind the pearl. Thumb up, the knife just sat there, completely perched on my finger, surprisingly stable and level. Then I set my index finger forward of the pearl and turned my hand over the handle as I pinched the other side of the blade with my thumb and put the edge down to the board. In this position, the handle made more sense, and if your grip allows it, the handle's weight will very slightly over-counter the blade, making the 8" blade seem lighter and ready to go to work. It made me wish someone needed 10 lbs of julienne onions in a hurry. So, yeah...although it's not the easiest thing to imagine, the Type 301 is indeed comfortable to hold. And if I can skip ahead here, I'm going to say that it is comfortable to use too. Our prep/test session lasted about two hours and the only adjustment I found myself making was that I could afford to use a lighter grip without any loss of control. But I want to put the handle portion of the discussion behind us, because the real story on Type 301 knives is not the handle, it's the blade.
The first thing about Type 301 blades, is that in use, they have a brilliant combination of bite and smooth-cutting performance. The blades appeared sharp when we inspected them and they aced our initial paper test, so we expected sharp. But as we waded into the veg prep, we discovered a wicked bite that sank the edge into veggies like there was a magnet pulling it in. If you look closely at the edge of a type 301, you'll notice something different about it.
The bevel is a bit wider and starts deeper back from the edge like the popular Japanese brands, but there also seems to be a grain honed into it that runs perpendicular to the edge. You can't feel it with your finger, but you can see it when you hold it against a light the right way. And I think that grain might transfer some of the slicing force applied to the blade into a downward force? But that's a guess...what I can say positively is all three knives zipped through onion skins like they weren't there and didn't stop till they hit the cutting board. Additionally the cutting was clean, controlled and required minimal applied force.
The second thing about Type 301 blades, is that they give you great feedback. In the same way the knife sends vibrations to the handle, it gives a kind of feedback as it slices through foods. I'd attribute this to the edge-grain paired with the uninterrupted steel design, and I found it very pleasing. It adds a visceral quality to the blade's otherwise super-smooth cuts, and helps you know what the edge is up against. But it depends on what you're cutting. For example, while trimming a fat cap from the lamb shoulder I didn't get much feed back and the blade almost snuck up on me when it advanced with a slice faster than I expected. But when using the paring knife to brunoise shallots or peel a potato, feedback was good and helped you counter the delicate resistance with the appropriate pressure for really controlled work. I think home cooks will find this feedback kind of encouraging and professionals will enjoy the enhanced control, or at least the fact that it feels a little different.
In our, admittedly, short test the edges held up very well. I even tried to sabotage the chef's knife and parer by leaving them stranded for about 15 minutes in a tray full of tomato juice left over from dicing 10 big beefsteaks. It will just take more time and use to make an accurate determination, so we'll be sure to post a follow-up once the knives reach the point where they need to be resharpened. But so far, things look good. Each knife passed paper test #2, though the chef's knife and santoku did not quite zip through as they had on the first test. A few feather-light strokes on a steel put them right back and they sliced through paper test #3 like they first had, straight from the box. The parer crushed paper test #2 so we didn't even bother steeling it.
Feel, Control and Weight
One of the best things I can say about the three Type 301's we tested, is that they share a very common and unique feel, and not just because of their handle design. All have a very sharp and biting edge that made cutting effortless and each demonstrated great feedback (the santoku maybe a little less feedback). And what's more, they don't feel like the typical quality German nor Japanese knives. If there was some socially-acceptable way to blind-test a knife (although we're sure there isn't) Type 301's would be pretty easy to identify on cutting performance alone. And visually, it'd be impossible to mistake them for anything else. Control is excellent, although that may have more to do with the blade than the handle; a reminder that a sharp knife is a safe knife because it simply goes where you want it to go. All the knives were very well balanced and felt a bit on the lighter side of the scale, particularly when in grip. They feel more substantial than the closest comparable design, Global.
The 8" Chef's knife passed every test easily. The novelty and curiosity of the handle design passed the moment we started cutting vegetables. Having used the this knife for a while now, I consider the driving bite and pleasant feed back to be the Type 301's defining characteristics. One very minor criticism is that the blade does not have the heft to crush garlic well, but then neither do Global nor Shun Classic knives. The control is great, it's comfortably light, fast and fun to use. Because cuts are very clean and the blade is smooth, foods with higher moisture content can adhere to the blade, but that's kind of the norm.
True to it's design, the 7.25" santoku dropped dead-straight through veg and sliced strips of raw lamb with great control. It did not offer quite the feedback of the others, but still enough to pick it out of a crowd. Peeled carrots were planked Asian style, on the bias before getting stacked for a julienne cut and then a dice. The whole carrots never stood a chance to become unstable because the blade sank in before they could roll to one side or another and all of our dices had very respectable straight sides and sharp corners. Both the Chef's knife and santoku easily produced see-through slices of onion, tomato and bell pepper fillets and super-light chiffonades of scallions and mint with no bruising or discoloration.
The 3.25" paring knife is an absolute scalpel that will make you think your knife skills are way better than they really are! I applaud Chroma for making a true parer that is short enough to safely and comfortably perform in-hand work. Of course this limits it's versatility on larger foods, but that's a more-than-fair trade-off. The parer made controlled peels of potato and apple, tomato skins and really nice, reasonably fast tournéed potatoes. While boning the lamb shoulder and on a whim, I tried to use the parer to skate a fine incision along the flat of blade bone. Because of the bite and sharpness of the blade, I sent it through a 3-4" length of cartilage without knowing (not recommended!). It still aced the rest of the food prep exercises, and a finishing paper test without having to be steeled at all.
The Chroma Type 301 8" Chef's knife, 7.25" Santoku and 3.25" Paring knife aced our modest little test without breaking a sweat, and we had fun using them. We found the knives to be highly competent, performance-oriented cutlery with edges that hold their own against the closest Japanese competitor, Global- but that is not to say they are the same. In fact, Type 301's possess a unique and pleasant feel that is all their own, and that's a big part of their allure.
I would recommend these knives for professional use, the performance is definitely there, however since I no longer perform day in and day-out prep, I can't speak on the long-term comfort of the handle. But as a special "sharpie" to keep in reserve for service and clean presentations, they would be a fine choice. I will mention that Type 301's have a legitimate professional following throughout Europe and Australia and are endorsed by such luminaries as Alain Ducasse and Jörg Wörther, plus Type 301's were also used by the winner of the 2005 Bocuse d'Or Competition, Serge Vieira and a ton of other pros, particularly in Germany and the Scandinavian countries. Put them on your list, they are definitely worth a try.
And for home cooks who like the Type 301's style- we absolutely recommend them. In home use they will easily stand up to years of fine cooking and reward the user with great performance and eye-catching design. The pricing is comparable to or lower than the competition, (namely Global and most Shun lines) and they are backed by a manufacturer's lifetime warranty. They require no special maintenance (as long as you don't consider hand washing to be special maintenance) and the control and feel is excellent. They also ship in an attractive gift box lined in closed cell foam that is custom-cut to protect each specific knife, so it should arrive safely and in good order.
One final note: Chroma makes a pointed effort to dissuade consumers from using a steel to hone Type 301 Cutlery and instead recommends that the edges simply be sharpened on an 800 grit maintenance whetstone, when needed. While that's never a bad idea, we could not imagine why using a honing steel on the blades would be detrimental, given the 301 steel's tough-not-brittle properties. The best answer we got from the manufacturer is that the designers may be a bit inflexible about recommending anything but the best maintenance practices for the Type 301 series. I'm not really sure. But we used both a ceramic and a traditional steel with typically good results and no problems.