Among all the tools and gadgets that can fill a kitchen, knives are without a doubt the most personal and indispensable. Admire one in a chef’s collection and prepare for an unsolicited earful of its history, but do not expect an offer for you to try it. My own collection is modest but I’m proud of it. Among them, my favorites are a Wüsthof Classic Cook’s Knife and my Tadafusa santoku. The Wüsthof capably does everything from mincing a shallot to cutting up a chicken and the sharper blade angle of the santoku cuts through vegetables like a scalpel.
Misen Chef’s Knife
A $65 knife that promises the quality of its $140 competition.
Despite solid out-of-the-box performance (and extremely favorable reviews of prototype models) the steel quality, particularly its hardness, is nowhere near what Misen claims it is. Shown to a master bladesmith who ran extensive tests on it, he compared the quality of the Misen’s steel not with a knife that cost $140, but that of one he bought for $12 at Walmart.
A new chef’s knife from Misen promises the best of both knives, making giant-killer claims about innovative geometry, high-grade steel, a santoku-style blade angle, and free sharpening for life. Most impressively, it brags of what it calls the “honest price” of $65, a number that’s less than half the price of the high-end knives it calls its competition.
Intrigued, I called one in to test. Misen started as a Kickstarter but is shipping its knives this fall. Days later, I had my chef’s knife, my santoku, and the Misen chef’s knife lined up next to one another on my cutting board. The most striking feature of the Misen was the side view, which looked a bit like both knives, combining the flatter belly of the santoku and both the handle and upward sweep at the tip of the chef’s knife, a sort of westernized version of a Japanese knife known as a gyuto.
I bought a bag full of groceries to chop and declared game the game afoot. The differences between the three knives were immediately apparent. While the Misen most resembles a traditional chef’s knife, it doesn’t really behave like one. The Wüsthof has a large, curving ‘belly,’ a German style that encourages a rocking cutting motion with the tip of the knife planted on the board, the back end moving up and down, while the whole thing slides back and forth with each stroke. The santoku style relies more on keeping its flatter blade parallel to the cutting board, gliding forward with each downward movement.
For me, the Misen often felt most comfortable using a santoku-style stroke. It was particularly noticeable when I was working my way through something tall like a wedge of cabbage or chopping up a pile of herbs. Try a stroke that allows the Wüsthof to power through that kind of work with the Misen and it’ll feel like a flat thud every time the length of the blade hits the cutting board. That said, I felt confident that the best stroke for whatever I cut with the Misen would become apparent with use, and I’d get better with it over time.
In my three-knife showdown with a bag of groceries, the Misen never became my weapon of choice. The first thing I worked on was cutting bacon into a quarter-inch dice for a potato and leek soup. Cutting the thick slices into long strips was fine, but when I switched to the crosswise cut, things got … dicey. The Wüsthof sliced through cleanly, creating nice, neat corners and edges. The Misen needed an awkwardly exaggerated stroke to get the same result, otherwise it slightly crushed the cubes. It had similar difficulty with the final strokes that cut a red pepper into the tiny cubes of a brunoise.
Like the Wüsthof, the Misen used its weight to slice easily through a russet potato and just like the Wüsthof, the slices stuck to the side of the knife with suction-cup force, a common problem my santoku sidestepped thanks to dimpling on the side of its blade. All three knives blazed through leeks and chives. The Wüsthof and the Misen both performed admirably cutting a chicken into pieces, including powering through the breastbone, something I wouldn’t do with my santoku.
On the other hand, the santoku is my go-to knife for most veggies, unless it’s something really firm that I need to lean into, but here I noted something peculiar. Misen touts its santoku-like 15-degree blade angle, as opposed to the wider angle of most chef’s knives, but just like my Wüsthof, the Misen never felt like my scalpel-like santoku.
Despite these misgivings, that attractive price tag loomed large and I called a pair of bladesmiths to decode what was happening.
“Most people will evaluate their edge in the first 10 minutes of use,” said Daniel O’Malley of Epicurean Edge in Kirkland, Washington, who explained that a diligent knife sharpener can put a fairly sharp edge on most knives, but poorer blades just won’t hold that edge for long. “Really, what we should care about is how they feel about it 12 months down the line.”
Over the phone, I steered O’Malley toward Misen’s website, where the company talks about what makes its knife special and how it says the knives measure up against their higher-priced competition. He went quiet for a while.
The first thing bladesmith O’Malley got hung up on was the kind of steel Misen uses. There’s nothing special about AUS-8, O’Malley says. It’s mid-level Japanese steel. He got hung up again on the percent of carbon Misen uses in its comparison: 0.8 percent in the Misen versus 0.6 percent in the competition. “Carbon’s just one player,” O’Malley says. “Too much carbon makes it brittle. They’re playing loose and fast with what ‘premium’ means.”
The makeup of a knife’s steel determines characteristics like how well it takes and holds an edge, and how rust-resistant it is. More carbon makes a blade harder, which is generally a good thing, but more likely to rust, which means you have to dote on it a bit more. Molybdenum, for example, is another hardener that also makes a blade less brittle. The composition is a balancing act. My Wusthöf blade, for example, is made of the well-respected X50CrMoV15 compound, which creates a knife with a good edge and great corrosion resistance. It’s a 56 on the Rockwell scale of hardness, pretty much the lowest you want to go on that scale. Misen claims an impressive score of 58-59. Most knives in the low 60s will retail at close to $150 and often much more.
“Really, though,” said O’Malley. “Misen’s innovation is on price, and 65 dollars is what I’d expect for a well-made knife out of China.” While Misen’s four-page site mentions Japanese steel three times, there’s no mention of China, so I emailed a representative who replied that, “the primary manufacturing partners for heat treatment, assembly, polishing, sharpening and other knife construction processes are located in China.”
O’Malley had already expressed warnings about Chinese-made knives; most of them tend not to maintain the hardness they claim. Suddenly, things felt a little loose and fast for a knife claiming to stack up with $140 knives.
Wheel of Pain
O’Malley was about to get on a plane for a week-long knife-making trip to Japan, so he put me in touch with master bladesmith Bill Burke in Idaho in an effort to peer 12 months down the line.
Burke’s findings were damning. He used a Rockwell hardness tester to verify Misen’s hardness claims.
“The performance of this knife is very lacking,” Burke says. “Just on par with an old Chicago Cutlery piece. Hardness tested at 51.5 [Rockwell] at the heel, 51 mid point, then going up to 56 near the tip.”
Chicago Cutlery slight aside, the results were so surprising, the hardness so much lower than the 58-59 that Misen claims, that Burke recalibrated his machine and re-tested using a different method, but it produced the same results. He even ran the machine one more time on an industry-standardized block of steel, which came out exactly where it should have.
Burke realized that the varying hardness numbers—not a good thing—were likely the result of improper heat treatment and cooling, meaning the thicker parts of the blade would be softer. (See my photo.) This means that while you could put a decent edge on it, like you could do with any knife, it would dull quickly and have the very undesirable trait of becoming worse with every sharpening, as you worked into the thicker, softer center of the knife.
Once Burke started testing how it cut, he texted me a picture of the blister that was forming on his finger where it came in contact with the spine of the knife. He also found edge angle discrepancies with Misen’s claims, which explained why I was having chef’s knife-style results instead of something more like a santoku. He also performed a blade-cutting test that involved a scale to learn how much pressure was necessary to repeatedly cut through a hemp rope. He compared it with a pair of Japanese knives that retail for $129 to $189, and those needed only 10 to 22 pounds of pressure over the course of repeated cuts. The Misen needed between 19 and 32 pounds. The Chicago Cutlery knife, which Burke bought for $12 at Walmart, needed almost the same pressure as the Misen—between 21 and 32 pounds.
We reached out to Misen, and the company says it was surprised to learn of our results from the hardness tests. Misen says it aims for a hardness of 58-59 for its knives, and that when the batches of steel were tested for hardness during production, each batch fell within this range. As for our findings about the edge angle, the company says its edges are hand-sharpened, so some variance is to be expected. The company says that over time it will tighten the tolerance ranges for hand-grinding, and that in time, consumers will see less variance from the 15-degree goal.
It’s also worth noting that O’Malley runs a knife shop and Burke makes knives, so to a very small extent Misen, which sells knives direct from its website, is a form of competition.
In the end, it made me think of cars. At home, I had my Wüsthof, which felt like a dependable, tank-like Mercedes E-Class. Next to it was my Miata-esque santoku for when I wanted something a bit more sporty. The bladesmiths’ warnings about the Misen gave me feeling like it was a car that looked and handled great when you drove it off the lot, but ended up spending a lot of time in the shop, something like a Ford Probe.
My advice? If you’re short on cash and need a chef’s knife in a hurry, try the Forschner/Victorinox Fibrox, which you can get for around $40. If you’ve got a bit more money but still less than $100, try the hybrid style with a Mac Superior or the Tojiro DP. And if you want something like my Wüsthof, it’s pretty easy to find on sale for less than a C-note.