Old school chefs never "graduate" apprentices to the stove until they have mastered knife skills. And the first step to proficiency, even if earning three stars isn't on your radar, is having the right equipment.
"Knives are tools and there's a proper tool for every job," says Chef Brian Patterson, knife skills instructor at L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Md. He recommends five essentials:
• 9- or 10-inch chef's knife: The "workhorse of the kitchen," it chops, dices and juliennes fruits, vegetables and herbs.
• Serrated slicer: Your basic bread knife. Also to be used on fibrous fruits and vegetables, like pineapples, and delicate items, such as tomatoes.
• Paring knife: Peels apples, pears, potatoes and any other fruit or vegetable you care to skin. Use the chef's knife to cut these, however.
• Small filet knife: Breaks down fish and most poultry using a scalpel-like tip. The flexible blade probes bone and muscle.
• Carving knife: Shears meat from larger beasts like cow and turkey.
Most home cooks can get by with the first three (though the carving knife is always handy on Thanksgiving).
No matter how many you get, choose quality knives. Two criteria to watch for are good balance in your hand (the key being "your," so be sure to try before you buy) and a tang (the metal of the blade) that extends fully into the handle.
With proper care, a good knife will last decades. Patterson advises daily honing sliding it along a steel to keep it sharp and a full-on sharpening roughly once a year to recondition it.
Consider having your knives professionally sharpened, since an improper job can ruin them. Shops such as Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma sometimes offer sharpening services or recommendations, or manufacturer also may offer the service.
And the final piece of advice from Patterson? "Don't cut toward yourself with any knife. And don't drink and cut, just like driving."