I was working as a cook many years ago when my boss told me that buying my first high-quality knife was a rite of passage. I was instructed not to get anything with bells or whistles, and ended up with a wooden-handled nine-inch chef’s knife, the brand of which I’ve long since forgotten. It was a basic workhorse, but it was enough to start my love affair with cutlery.
Many cooks enjoy the ritual of caring for their blades and take pride in building up the knife skills that separate a pro from an enthusiast. While I can’t claim to have accomplished the latter, I was a sucker for the former.
A procession of knives has come and gone since then; I dallied with ceramic and had my mother’s ancient Chicago Cutlery sharpened; while in Paris, I grabbed pocketfuls of Nogents. And I’m not the only one with an eye for a pretty piece of steel. The home cooks of yore were content with Henckels and Wüsthofs, but today’s connoisseurs are looking for something more. Even my father, who can make an entire meal without laying hands on anything but a paring knife, has a Shun.
The folks at Bernal Cutlery in San Francisco are happy to supply them. More than selling a mere product, the store elevates knives to a force for creative good. On their Web site, their creed is front and center: “Knives reflect the evolution of our creative relationship with food and cooking, and through that, our relationship with the world that sustains us.”
On a recent visit, I walked away with an Ashi Hamono “home knife,” the Swedish stainless steel blade frighteningly sharp after getting a fresh edge on its way out of the shop. (In addition to their retail business, the shop offers classes in knife sharpening; they are sharpening fanatics.)
They also carry an extensive collection of vintage French knives, which are prized by those in the know. “Man, I tell you,” Joel Bukiewicz says, “the best knives ever made were those Sabatiers from the ’50s.” He evokes the 10-inch blades wielded by Julia Child as an illustration. Bukiewicz ought to know; he is the driving force behind Cut Brooklyn, an artisanal knife shop in New York. Many a knife geek indulges in the world of high-end specialty knives, but only the truly obsessed move on to handcrafted ones.
In a workshop below a modest storefront a few blocks from the recently opened (but long-awaited) Brooklyn Whole Foods, Bukiewicz and a handful of assistants make truly one-of-a-kind products, hand-sanding the edges and epoxying the handles one by one. Blades in various states of completion are tucked between welders and plasma cutters, waiting for the next round of personalized attention. Of course, such a labor-intensive and beautiful product doesn’t come cheap. Some of his knives cost $650 (at DC Sharp, another cutlery mecca, a set will run you $2,499.99).
Moriah Cowles of Orchard Steel once worked for Bukiewicz, whom she considers a mentor, but about a year ago she branched off to form her own business. In her Brooklyn studio, she takes the handmade element one step further, actually forging her own steel. Her small, propane-fueled oven is usually set to about 1600° F but can go well above that temperature. Cowles trained with a knife maker in Mexico and later honed her skills in Maine, Vermont, and elsewhere; she is now celebrating a year in her own space perfecting her craft.
“It was amazing for me to see the difference when I was going through my first prototype,” Cowles says. “You think at first that a knife’s a knife, that there’s not that much that will change as you change the shape of it. But it’s amazing: the tiniest nuance in the line of the blade can make such a big difference in how the knife feels, in how it behaves.”
Cowles lends her knives to professional cooks to get feedback from people who spend long hours chopping and dicing (“I’ll never be in the kitchen that long,” she says). This feedback helps her fine-tune her designs. For example, she can add the perfect amount of bounce, removing the thud that can reverberate up a cook’s arm when a flawed blade meets the cutting board.
One of the key differences between a mass-produced knife and an artisanal one is the ability to make such adjustments and to constantly refine her work. However, it’s not just about quality: Cowles is the first to say that an industrially produced knife can be as good as something she makes. As with all artisanal products, it’s primarily about introducing a human element. Her customers know her methods, where she gets her materials, and the attention to detail lavished on each one, providing a certain je ne sais quoi to what is typically a workaday item.
I try to keep my knife habit under control, sticking to a few necessities rather than buying the menagerie I’d be all too happy to own. But I understand the desire to imbue an object with a narrative, a personal connection. My freelance income doesn’t afford me an artisanal knife, but I carry one particular blade with me wherever I go.
As I have written about elsewhere, I live a fairly nomadic lifestyle, renting apartments in different cities every few weeks or months. I tuck my nine-inch knife into a box and then into my checked luggage (the TSA does not share my sentiments about knives). It is both a practical item—if you have ever encountered an Ikea knife too dull to slice bread, you know why—and a comfort to me; it is a familiar companion in strange kitchens, reminding me of the many that came before.
Photos by the author.
Cara Parks has written for the New York Times, Slate, and The New Republic. She is the former deputy managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine and teaches as an adjunct professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Next stop: Shanghai.