I’d recommend Henckels knives. They have several product lines; mine are from the Professional “S” line. Another good brand is Wusthof. But you can get perfectly good no-name knives from a restaurant supply house. And rather than buying a knife set, I’d recommend buying knives one at a time, as you need them.
You can do just about anything with a chef’s knife, a paring knife and a serrated knife. The chef’s knife should be eight or ten inches, depending on what you’re comfortable with. The serrated knife is for slicing bread and other baked goods, so it should be long enough to do that job.
I agree with Dewey Finn that you can get good deals on knives at restaurant supply stores. I also agree with Johnny Bravo that it’s important to learn how to care for your knives - it would be a shame to buy a really good knife and then fail to keep a proper edge on it.
I’ve had a set of Henckel knives for going on 20 years now. I like the heft, balance and ability to keep an edge. That said, I really love the Shun that I bought last year: razor sharp, balanced and attractive. They also come in sets. Somebody mentioned CUTCO above: gotta say that I’m not a fan. They always seem flimsy to me and not worth the price. Avoid Chicago Cutlery, unless you’re a fan of constant sharpening.
They were highly recommended by Cook’s Illustrated and in my experience can’t be beat for quality and value. They take an edge quickly and easily, hold it and for my hands are quite comfortable and non-slip.
I have a CUTCO chopping knife. It’s not flimsy at all. But I think people who care about balance and feel wouldn’t like it. I also have their slicing knife. It’s normally serrated, but they ground off the serrations for me. It’s good and long, strong and flexible, just right for slicing roast beef. I have a couple of their paring knives too, but don’t use them. The handles are too small. They’re all stainless steel and you have to be good at sharpening to restore an edge. I prefer my carbon steel sushi knives for most purposes. None have big names or high prices, and the wooden handles won’t live as long as the blades, but they sharpen to the best edge for metal, and they’re thick and strong.
Something I see missing from a lot of knife sets and people’s collections are cleavers. I have several at different sizes. They have the weight to cut through bone, portion frozen items, they’re fun to chop with if you’re not going for uniformity.
Whatever you buy, I’d make sure that the knives have a full tang. It really doesn’t matter if the handle is riveted or of molded material. I’d avoid wooden handles if you plan on putting them in the dishwasher, as they will deteriorate more quickly. Get a decent knife block, if you don’t have one, and store the knives edge-up: they stay sharp longer that way. Get them honed once a year by somebody that knows what they’re doing, unless you know what you’re doing. A lot of markets with butcher counters provide free knife sharpening.
Since you ask about steel vs ceramic: I’m a big advocate of ceramic for home cooks. They require zero maintenance and are very sharp. Kyoceras in particular are also nice-looking and have a solid warranty.
Admittedly, I don’t actually OWN any. My knives are Shun, and I rather like 'em. If I was buying again, I’d buy Kyocera. I have recommended them to friends, and have heard very satisfied results.
Personally, I’d look at multiple of the good brands and then, most importantly, try to hold the knives before buying them. If the knife doesn’t feel good in your hand, you won’t like it, and may have problems with it.
I once owned the Global GS-38 paring knife. See how it looks fairly symmetrical? I would constantly put it down on the cutting board and then pick it up the other way, with the blade facing upward. If you wrap a finger over the spine of your knife or occasionally steady the blade with your index fingertip, and have that problem with picking up a knife and not noticing which way is up, you will eventually cut yourself badly. I wised up and got rid of the knife, and picked up a paring knife with a much more obvious shaping to the blade and handle.
My husband has a set of ceramics - Kyoceras, and a couple larger ceramics from Ikea. He loves them.