Chef Quality Knives Appear in the Home Kitchen
By Micah Cheek
There’s a lot of mystique around the chef’s knife. The all-purpose blade is one of the great kitchen essentials, giving it the kind of notoriety that gets it tattooed on the arms of culinary school students en masse. With this kind of mystique, it’s no wonder that kitchen knives are starting to blur the lines between tools and works of art. Chefs and home cooks alike are looking for knives that are as beautiful as they are sharp.
Zack Worrell, Founder and Owner of Monolith Knives, is part of a community of creators of artfully crafted knives. “The [artisan] culinary knife movement is only about 12 years old. The true leader of it is Bob Kramer. He went out and started doing this in the 1990s. He had worked in restaurants all his life, and he wanted a knife that was better than anything he could find,” says Worrell. “I think the industry is definitely on fire, there’s huge room for growth.” Monolith Knives creates custom culinary blades in Charlottesville, Virginia. Many chefs, including some James Beard Award-winners, have sought Monolith out for their rustic designs and unusual handles.
Knife buyers are informed enough about knife materials and quality that they find value in the special materials Monolith sources. “Some of the steel we get to work with is so amazing,” says Worrell. “We use both carbon steel and stainless steel, and carbon Damascus and stainless Damascus. We buy it from curated boutique shops in the United States and a company from Sweden called Damasteel. It’s one of the most high-performance steels on the market.”
For customers who are looking for rare and special building materials, knife makers can use materials with a story, including steel from the leaf spring suspensions of classic muscle cars. “We also use reclaimed metal. We try to pick cool cars so we can tell a story. We did some last year that were all made from a ’69 Mustang. We anneal the steel, normalize and later re-harden and temper the steel – all part of the crucial heat-treating process. That’s like giving it a new life.”
When looking into handcrafted knives, it is important to make sure that they were created from responsibly sourced materials. “Export laws are changing. There’s a type of wood that’s really rare called desert ironwood – people cut it out of protected lands in Arizona, and when you go to a knife show you’ll see tables full of it,” says Worrell. “You see some stuff at shows like elephant tusk and coral – it really has no place here. There’s a lot of exotic wood that comes into the country that isn’t regulated.”
Customers will respond to more ecologically friendly materials that tell a story. And those materials don’t have to come from an iconic muscle car. “For us, using domestic wood is cool. We find stuff that’s semi-rotted and then inject it with resin and dyes, and then it looks super cool. Locally sourced means so much more to people,” Worrell says. “There’s this big orange tree in my front yard – when Meriwether Lewis came home from his expedition with James Clark, he brought home Osage orange. I have a bunch of wood that has come from James Monroe’s house here in Virginia, and James Madison’s, and Thomas Jefferson’s at Monticello. It’s amazing wood.”
Resin handles are growing in popularity because they open up lots of opportunities for interesting patterns and styles. “There’s trends like resin handles, they’ve been a big thing. We do a lot of experimentation with that. The resin casting stuff is pretty cool – it lets us get into the full picture of the knife,” says Worrell. Monolith makes its own handles in a style similar to Micarta, which is produced by laminating linen soaked in resin. After sanding, the resulting handle is light, sturdy and watertight. These resin handles are especially appealing to people working in kitchens, thanks to its resistance to water and bacteria.
Figuring out how to do a retail business in handcrafted knives can be tough. “Sometimes we have retailers who want to carry our stuff. Sometimes it gets difficult to be able to meet their expectations for material,” says Worrell. “We’re still a small business, so margins are tight. We work with people who are willing to get us a better points spread on our margin, and then we can handle the drop ship and everything for them, and they’re just committing to a certain number of sales per year.”
More exciting designs are also available for consumers looking for bold designs that require less of an investment. Cangshan Cutlery has been producing wood handles and sheaths which have proven popular with an educated audience. “Wood is very much on trend right now, we’re very aware of it. The problem with wood in knives is the sanitation issue. If people don’t have great sanitation practices, that can be a problem.” says Christopher Saunders, Creative Director, Cangshan Cutlery.
“We do talk about maintenance of the wood, oiling it periodically, and the fact that you have to take care of it more. We’re building on those materials to educate the people who buy our knives,” adds Rob Walling, National Sales Manager, Cangshan Cutlery.
A functional and beautiful chef’s knife can take the place of many other blades in the kitchen. “I think minimalism is becoming popular. Kitchens are getting smaller. We’re pushing for an essential knife block, not with 20 knives you never use,” says Saunders, who points out that Millennials in smaller living spaces will be looking for attractively designed essentials. “The younger generation is looking for something that’s a little more space saving. But I tell you what, a 23-piece NI Series knife set sitting in your kitchen makes a bold statement,” says Walling.
Going into the future, Saunders expects smooth lines and bold tones to play an even greater part in knife design. “I think probably more minimalistic styles are going to be big, possibly even more artistic, playing with bold colors and wood,” says Saunders.