When it comes to general cooking knives the santoku and french chef's are generally the ones most often mentioned. Is the style of use very different? The only real difference I'm aware of is that you can use a "rocking" motion with the french chef's but not with the santoku. What is the difference between them and when would you use a santoku over a french chef's assuming quality between both was on par?
Both the Santoku and French knives will work for the same types of things, so a lot of it comes down to preference. Santoku knives are lighter, so this can lead to less hand strain and quicker cutting. One thing that the Santoku are very good at is very thin slicing of vegetables, for two reasons: first, as you point out, you do not use a rocking motion, but rather chop down in one motion, which with practice can be quicker and more efficient. Second, Santoku knives usually have a much thinner blade angle (around 15 degrees vs 30-40 degrees on a French knife). This is because one side of a Santoku is flat, and the other side is beveled (like a chisel), so you only sharpen one side. To accommodate this thin blade the Santoku knives will be made with a harder steel, which helps maintain blade sharpness, but may increase the propensity for chipping if misused, and also makes them harder to sharpen.
Still, personal preference dictates which knife to use. Many people prefer the Gyuto style of knife, which (roughly speaking) combines features of both Santoku knifes and French knives. They are made of a hardened steel, are sharpened on both sides, but maintain edges around 22-26 degrees. The Gyutos, like the Santokus are fairly light. Gyutos also have a rounded belly but it is less pronounced than on a French knife.
There is much more to be said, but basically the thing to do is get your hands on some knives and start experimenting--see what you like!
Good answer kevins. I completely agree.
Gyuto and French chef's knives are basically interchangeable (for use). Eastern vs Western styled blades. The main difference is in feel and small construction details, which aren't that relevant for use but very relevant for sharpening.
In general, western-styled chef's knives are a little easier to rock with. You can get a nice circular motion going; you just have to adjust your technique a little. It's a comfort thing.
One thing to note about santoku knives though: they are also used interchangeably with chef's knives, except when cutting hard things like squash or potato. It's the fact that the blade is flat on one side and beveled (angled) on the other. One side will push on the product while the other doesn't. this means that the cut will turn towards one side, usually to the left. this is important since you can easily cut yourself (left fingertips) because the knife has a tendency to cut to the left - which is VERY pronounced with hard products. Be careful!
From a not too great home cook:-
I had both types of a very very cheap brand. Those multicoloured ones.
The blue coloured Chef's knife and the green Santoku were most used.
The cutting surface came to my naval level and the board was, again, a cheap bamboo piece.
I used the rocking and crosscut motion, almost always. (It was possible with the Santoku, as well)
Repeatedly, I found the Santoku to be easier to use.
The wider blade was better for scooping up the chopped onion, ginger, garlic.
I never tested them deliberately, but, now that I see this question, it just crops up in my mind.
I am just reminiscing.
The longer Chef was the obvious choice, initially.
There were times that it was not at hand and I had to switch to the Santoku and almost always it was a better experience.
I am going to buy a Wusthof Santoku, today and shall let you know.
Specific advantage could be of the lack of a point. I don't remember using the point on that knife for anything at all! Lack of it makes the Santoku much easier to handle.
Rest, methinks, is snobbery.
I'm a professional cook and have been for some 30 years. I used mostly a 10 inch chefs knife, a decent one will work for almost anything in a pinch (although purpose knifes will work better for boning, filleting).
Ten years ago I purchased an inexpensive Henckels Santoku and I've started using it exclusively for most vegetables. It's a nice, sharp light knife, it keeps it's edge (which is really about the metal rather than the style), is bevelled on both sides, has a reasonable curve for rocking but can also be used well for slicing (like mushrooms, I don't rock I just slice which is easier and faster with a light narrow knife).
The first one I got broke at the tang just at the first rivet after the second day, it was obviously cracked from the rust I could see, and was replaced free of charge.
One thing I like about the Santoku is I find it's easier to sharpen than a chefs blade. It doesn't have the curved tip nor does it have a guard that so many chefs blades have. I find they get in the way of sharpening, which eventually produces a hollow in the blade just before the guard.
The down side of the Santoku is it's thin, (like many inexpensive chefs blades) so pressing down on it can cause pain.
Western chef knives are optimized both in blade profile and material choice for rock chopping (not: chopping rocks), cross chopping, guilloutine-and-glide and similar techniques that are done by rolling the edge across the food and/or with the tip resting on the board (tip-pivot technique).
Santoku are derived a lot from japanese vegetable knives (nakiri), and are optimized - flatter though not completely flat profile, harder material on a quality knife - for techniques where the pivot point is the hand/wrist of the user and the knife is lifted off the board in its entirety between cuts. Chef knife techniques can be done too if needed, albeit less comfortably and/or efficiently (though more comfortably than if you were using an actual nakiri).
Japanese-influenced modern chef knives are, by material choice and blade profile, often more suited to santoku style techniques than western technique; care has to be taken not to use excessive force when using these, because while they are designed to wear less from within-specification use, they will take more serious wear and/or damage from abuse.
Hybrid shapes are best judged by their edge profile: For example, there are common Thai knives that look like a japanese bunka (a style of santoku) but which are by material, profile and function short chef knives.
I found this review on amazon, which does a good job of answering this question:
If you only own 1 knife, it should be a 10” chef. The 8” chef’s knife is the most common size, but the 10” is usually preferred by professionals and experienced home cooks. Most block sets include the cheapest knives that can still function for most jobs, which is why sets usually include 8” chef’s knifes, 8” bread knives, and 8” slicers, even though 10” knives usually do a better job. For chef’s knives, the extra two inches make tip-work a little less precise, but have many advantages. The longer blade means easier cutting since it gives more leverage and weight. More importantly, the two inches are essentially added between the end of the blade and the bolster. This means that the front 8” of the 10” perform all the functions of an 8” knife, plus the extra two inches create a much longer straight area near the handle, which gives a 10” knife the same slicing length as a santoku. This means the 10” chef does everything both these knives do, and usually does it better. The reason santokus are popular among housewives and not professional chefs is that housewives compare the santoku to the curved 8” blade. Professionals are usually trained with 10” knives, so they see the santoku as a crippled 10” knife which is of value only to people who don’t have the knife skills to use the more versatile and capable 10”. These days, you can acquire knife skills by going online, reading through a free tutorial, and practicing for a few hours, so a 10” is a good choice for anyone who likes to cook. (emphasis mine)
This seems to be in agreement with other opinions I have read as well. Although I cannot speak to this directly, as I'm still shopping, and have never used anything but a European-style chef's knife.