When Marcel insisted on playing “I’ll show you mine” with a reluctant Ilan in the first episode of last season’s Top Chef, viewers learned that knife kits are an important macho accessory in the restaurant world. Every week when the cheftestants entered the kitchen, their knife bags made all of them—even Betty with her banal dishes like crème brûlée—look a bit cooler. And when they got the boot, Padma’s command was to “pack your knives and go.”
Restaurant chefs generally don’t pack up every night. Space is almost always tight, but there’s usually a tray or drawer somewhere to stash personal pieces during the workweek. Come days off though, it’s wise to hide your knives in a locker if available or to take them home for safekeeping. I left my gear out only once, after some fellow chefs at Les Ambassadeurs begged me to because I was the sole one with an assortment of surgical tools. After my weekend I found my tiny scissors sheath missing and my paring knife’s tip bent.
A knife kit is simply a bag or roll that protects knives, tools, the person who carries them, and innocent bystanders during transport. The classic kit is a black roll, about the size of an extra-long folded newspaper, with narrow interior pockets for individual knives, tucked in handle first.
Though the knife kit is now recognized as the professional chef’s briefcase, it remains an anomaly among civilians. Every time I bring mine to friends’ or family members’ homes—to make, say, prep-intensive Shanghai fried spring rolls—from their reaction I might as well have brought a rifle case to a tea party.
These days, knife kits range in size and shape from handleless clutches to short-handled satchels, shoulder-strapped cases, backpacks, rolling carry-ons, and beyond, in multiple hues and even patterns, including leopard print.
A knife kit may have once seemed excessive for the home chef, but this was before you invested in good knives and your friends didn’t. For your next cook-over, pack your own kit and bring it—your knives and your skills.
6 Pocket Knife Roll
By Wusthof, $22.95
If you know you’re just going over to chop up some cobb salad with your cousins—or to guest-chef a few days at a restaurant—travel light. On those occasions I prefer Wusthof’s Spartan six-pocket roll. It’s only available in basic black and has no handle or strap, so it’s not bulky and can even roll up tightly when empty, unlike rolls with padded handles. Unroll the kit, lift the protective interior flap, slip your knives into the mesh pockets, roll and secure it with the Velcro straps, and you’re ready to go. Plus it’s covered in a wipeable poly finish rather than fabric, which is nice because flour seems to always find black fabric, no matter how far you are from the pastry kitchen.
By Messermeister, $55.95
While nearly every major knife manufacturer makes its own bags, there’s no law saying you have to match your bag to your knives. In fact you probably have knives from a few different companies—and quite frankly, matching all your goods is the mark of a slavish amateur. You don’t want to look like a woman I once saw in Paris wearing head-to-toe denim Dior.
The German cutlery maker Messermeister offers one of the best-selling knife bags in the world, its eight-pocket knife roll. It has recently introduced a book-style culinary satchel for when you need to carry a little more. Unzip the handled case to reveal a roomy interior and two double-sided “pages” with 16 separate pockets, as well as a mesh pocket for the little things. There are also pen pockets, a business-card holder, and a removable shoulder strap, all covered in fairly easy-to-clean, heavy-duty fabric.
Mobile Chef’s Case on Wheels
By Messermeister, $114.97
This is the rock star tour bus of knife kits. It’s the size of a standard carry-on suitcase (21 by 15 by 8 inches), but don’t ever try to carry it on-board a plane. You can, however, check your knives—or swords or even sabers—without a problem, as long as they’re securely wrapped or safely sheathed.
Also made by Messermeister, the black-only wheeled case with a long, collapsible handle actually comes with a separate removable knife roll, as well as a built-in plastic knife tray. The latter has slots for eight knives, but as many as 16 can fit if blades and handles are arranged alternately. There are a total of 33 slots and pockets for knives and tools.
Whether you’re a professional caterer doing a demo or a home chef preparing a feast for a four-generation family reunion, this bag means you won’t have to overpack your knife roll, cram it into your suitcase, and squeeze out your cute extra pair of shoes.
And the best part: Even fully loaded with your trusted spoons, spatulas, tongs, whisks, Microplane, immersion hand blender, infrared thermometer, Thermo Whip, Texturas powders, and knife roll, there’s enough room for one more piece of essential professional mobile cooking equipment: an iPod and portable speakers.