The cult, craft and culture of the cook’s knife is brought into sharp focus in a fascinating new book that pays homage to this essential kitchen tool
There is no piece of kitchen equipment quite as fundamental as the knife. A triumph of form and function, a good one is both an essential utensil and an exquisite piece of design.
“I’ve been cooking for most of my life, so knives have always been vital,” says cookery writer Tim Hayward, who has just published a book devoted to the topic. “My first job was in Fortes, a restaurant in Bournemouth, and I started to learn about knives from the chefs there, and inherited one or two. I learned how to sharpen. Knives are functional and beautiful and deserve respect. Some are blunt, some are horrid, but even mum’s old bread knife is a thing of beauty… a knife is what you make it, and a sharpening expert can put a brilliant edge on anything,” he says.
The selection of knives available once you venture beyond your local homewares store is bewildering, and it’s hard to know where to begin. The master knife – the one that’s most often in your hand – is the classic chef’s knife, designed according to the time-honoured French tradition. It has a curved blade that rocks to mince meat and herbs, and enough length to allow for the cutting of slices from big slabs of protein.
“Buying a chef’s knife is the first thing a self-defining serious cook does,” writes Hayward. “Sure, your mum had knives, you probably used one or two in grubby kitchens as a student, but the day you go out and intentionally drop fifty quid or more on a knife is the day you declare to the world that you’re not just someone who makes dinner — you’re now a cook.”
A culinary student’s knife roll is also likely to include a chef’s knife, plus a boner, a flexible filleter, a paring knife and a turning knife. “Beyond this,” Hayward says, “most cooks accumulate ‘special’ knives.”
These might include melon-ballers (stolen from the pastry section because they are so fast at coring tomatoes and cucumbers) or old favourites that really should have been retired but for which a chef feels a certain emotional attachment.
Elizabeth David is credited with relaunching serious cooking in post-war Britain, and she saw the knife as the key to taking cookery seriously. She favoured French carbon steel knives, which were softer and easier to sharpen than the more widely available stainless steel kitchen knives. The Davidian Sabatier knives she preferred had a tendency to rust, however, and could turn a lemon black. Nowadays, professional chef’s knives are more likely to have been made in Germany than France, with Wusthof and Henckels among the leading brands. In recent years, however, there has been a drift away towards Japanese knives.
As Asian-style cooking becomes more prevalent, so do lighter knives that are better suited to those cuisines
“The santoku – the knife most commonly used in Japanese homes and all over the world as a general-purpose kitchen knife – is based on the western chef’s knife but is lighter and with a straighter blade,” explains Hayward. “Most chefs prefer lighter knives these days. For years they wanted bigger, tougher knives but as they have matured as cooks they are using more vegetables, and as Asian-style cooking becomes more prevalent, so do lighter knives that are better suited to those cuisines.”
In very busy restaurant kitchens, other practices prevail. “The trend in restaurant kitchens is to use cheaper diamond-honed knives; you can put an edge on anything for four or five months,” Hayward says. “You replace the knives every six months, because you can’t stop your staff opening their tins of beans with them.”
Hayward’s advice for anyone looking to buy a special knife is to head to good knife shop and experiment.
It must feel good in your hand; after that, it’s a case of how much you can afford. A proper knife shop should have some food there for you to practise on – the tomato test is a good one, as is the onion.
“If a knife is sharp enough, you don’t cry when slicing onions, because you’re not mashing through the fibres and sending the fumes up to your eyes. Chef Henry Harris says he can taste the difference in a cooked dish between onions that have been chopped with a sharp or a blunt knife.”
Knives are such a personal object that it’s debatable whether it’s ever possible to successfully buy one for someone else.
“I have had a few knives bought for me,” says Hayward. “I think you have to know someone quite well to buy them a knife. You could buy someone a good auxiliary knife, but I’m not sure you could buy them their main knife.”
Hayward met Fingal Ferguson, the Irish knife maker, at Pigstock, a pig butchering party in Cornwall a couple of years ago.
“That man is a legend,” says Hayward. “He showed me the knives in his roll and they were some of the most beautiful I’d ever seen; every chef there wanted one of them.”
Ferguson makes knives at his base at the Gubbeen farm near Schull in Co Cork.
“I grew up in the food business with mum and dad making cheese,” says Ferguson, “and when I was in my teens I started curing and smoking. I’ve dabbled in lots of different things – I’m a butcher, a cook and a chef.
“I’ve always been obsessed with knives. I inherited a set from my uncle Harry, mum’s brother, when I was in my teens. He’d travelled a lot and it was a wonderful eclectic selection, including all sorts of illegal flick knives and switchblades and the like. I screwed a lot of them up, throwing them at trees and generally being a stroppy teenager, so then I wanted to learn how to fix and sharpen them. I started looking at a lot of knife websites online.
“Rory Connor in Ballylickey deserves a serious tip of the hat; he was trained by Bob Loveless who’s a big deal in the knife-making world. I spent a weekend in my early twenties learning with him and I’ve gone back over the years. He taught me the basics and I got the bug.”
Ferguson started selling knives about five years ago and describes his process as “the field-to-fork of the knife world”.
“I’m fascinated by all the different stages – the forging, the blade-smithing, the crash, bang wallop of red hot metal, the grinding, the drilling holes for the rivets, the getting rid of scratches and making the handles.
“For me, the balance of the knife in in the hand, how it feels and functions as a tool, those are the essentials. The look of it is subsidiary. You can buy the most beautiful knife in the world but find yourself reaching for your grandfather’s knife with the bocketty handle because it just feels right.”
Ferguson’s workshop is his man-cave, a place of retreat from the smokehouse and dairy, and his four boys under six.
“I’m a night owl,” he says. “I work with the materials I have to hand and I like to have knives at different stages, so that, whatever my mood, I have something to work with. There’s a big element of yin and yang to it: there’s all the sparks and grinders and hammers and bang-bang-bang, and then there’s the sandpapering and chasing scratches, which is quieter and more contemplative.”
It takes Ferguson 10-15 hours to make a knife, and prices range from €50 to €500. He posts photos of his latest knives on his Instagram account.
“The most expensive knife that I make would be a chef’s knife in Damascus steel with rare materials in the handle. The average is about €250 for a chef’s knife. I don’t want to overcharge people. I am very young in the process of making knives, and I’m lucky that people have taken an interest in what I’m doing and that the word got out, through people like Rachel Allen.”
Ferguson doesn’t work to commission, however, so those who wish to buy one of his knives must be patient.
“I have a waiting list. When I have a broad selection of knives I invite the next person on the list to look at them and choose. There’s no emotional pressure; if they don’t find something they like, that’s fine. About 500 have come and chosen their knife so far. ”
Ryan Stringer, head chef at Ely, describes himself as “a little bit of an obsessive” when it comes to knives.
“When I bought my first set I was very much “Dont touch!”. When you’re a young chef that’s all you have and it’s very important to you. You start with Victorinox which are hard-working, durable and don’t need a lot of sharpening. You get used to looking after them, you mark them with Sellotape or burn the handles so you can tell yours from everyone else’s, or your mum might engrave the blade for you at Christmas.”
About a decade ago, when he could afford to spend more, Stringer upgraded to Wusthof knives, which he says “last a lifetime”.
Stringer says that asking a chef to name their favourite knife is like asking a parent to name their favourite child.
“It’s more the case that you like a certain knife for a certain job. One is for slicing meat, another is for vegetables. A delicate Kasumi knife is for slicing fish, and I.O.Shen is really hard-working. Both of those brands are Japanese, from Seki. For me, these are the best on the market; you’d expect to pay upwards of €200 for a slicing knife.
“I keep mine in a leather roll – the cloth ones rip and tear. I’ve been buying bits and pieces since my mid-twenties and I keep adding to my collection. It’s definitely an obsession.”