Let's assume I'm going to buy just 3 or 4 knives, what would you recommend as far as size/types? I'm guessing a 7-8 inch chef type of knife, a 5-6 inch utility type of knife, and a 4 inch paring knife?
3 = Chef's in the 8 to 10" range....paring....bread knife that can double as slicer
4 = Chef's in the 8 to 10" range...paring....bread knife that can double as slicer....other knife that fits your cooking style. Other knife could be a heavy cleaver, a 6" sandwich knife, a boning knife....etc.
What is more useful all-around style of knife, western style chef's knife or Santoku?
Chef's knife for sure......the point/tip is more useful than on a santoku.
What are your thoughts on the DP vs. the Shirogami? (By the way, I'm left handed, my wife is right-handed.) My only concerns about the Shirogami are the "handedness" and the fact that the handle appears to be a soft wood.
The Tojiro Shirogami has a right handed "D" handle and may be uncomfortable for a leftie. The wood shouldn't be so soft that it becomes an issue. Some seal it with a cutting board wax, mineral oil, or other some such to prevent it from soaking in anything.
I would suggest the DP....more user friendly since the wife is involved. If you like it, ask for the Shirogami for Xmas and claim it as yours alone. Tell her to keep her mitts off.
Do we need a heavier knife in the mix for cutting denser stuff?
Depends on what you're cooking. Most don't NEED a heavy knife. If you bust up chickens, smack frozen food, etc.....then yes. But you can get a cheap, heavy cleaver for this task as it's not likely to be done a lot.
Are there other knife brands you might recommend? I know the Forschner/Victorinix is a popular knife and quite possibly the most bang for the buck, but to be perfectly blunt, I don't like the way they look and I want something with more cache/mystique. Perhaps that is shallow to a fault, but so be it.
Enjoy what you cook with and you'll enjoy cooking more. When I pull out one of my knives from Devin Thomas or Butch Harner....it's on like Donkey Kong and tonight's meal prep is going to be fun. If you like to cook, having a knife that means something to you makes it more fun.
p.s. Looking at a set of knives and not having any of them look identical (i.e. all of them are different brands/makes) is the sign of a proud chef in my opinion.