I used to brandish the dullest knives; you know, the steel ones with wooden handles that you can't keep sharp. Frankly, I didn't think I could afford good knives and was under the misapprehension that buying a whole set was mandatory. Man, I was wrong. You only need 3 knives, 4 if you want to go nuts. These are my picks: a chef's knife, at least 8 inches long, a paring knife, and a serrated bread knife. The fourth would be either a boning knife, which has a slender blade for slithering around bones, or a serrated tomato knife (one of my husband's faves) for slicing through tough tomato skins.
Quality is very important; a super cheap, light weight knife is a pain to work with. A chef's knife needs to be heavy enough to give you some leverage; I like the carbon steel knives by Wusthof and Henckels. Again, they have, last time I checked, a cheaper line. Run away!!! When I was still in school, the big buzz was on the Shun knives. I didn't get a chance to try one, but learned that you have to send your knife to Shun for sharpening when it gets dull. I learned this when some nitwits used another student's Shun to try to cut a stainless counter and dulled his knife. Why did he allow this? I can only shake my head. The lesson here is don't let nitwits touch your good knives.
Try not to spend too much on a bread knife; let me impart my experience. I bought a Wusthof serrated bread knife - a real beauty. Cut through crusty bread like hot butter, to be not too original. Eventually it became so dull it was maddening. YOU CAN'T SHARPEN A SERRATED KNIFE! Honing it with a steel helped some. I took it in to have new teeth put on, whatever that means, but it didn't help much. The moral of the story: don't buy a really expensive knife, it will only eventually break your heart and leave you high and dry (and dull).
To keep my knives sharp I use a honing steel (not as often as I should) and a Wusthof hand held sharpener (more often than I should). The sharpener was only about $20 and is really easy to use. I doubt it would help much with old steel knives which need to be retired anyway.
On to the Big Night - one of my favorite food movies. It's about two brothers from Italy, in what appears to be the 1950's. They have a failing restaurant, because the American idea of Italian food back then was spaghetti and meatballs. Period. Primo, the chef, is a fabulous cook who won't sacrifice his ideals. Secondo, the younger brother, wants to prosper, which would mean giving the public what it wants (spaghetti and meatballs). They get talked into a scheme to get the attention they need to bring in customers - which turns into a fabulous party, or Big Night. The story unfolds at its own leisurely pace. The food preparation scenes are inspiring as well as mouthwatering. The party, well, I just wanted to be there. Right in the middle, doing the mambo Italiano. Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub and the incomparable Ian Holm - need I say more, other than as Pascal so aptly put it to Primo: "your food is so good I want to kill you!" Rent it, then maybe buy it (like I did!).