Knife Life

A loving ode to the many roles knives play in a chef’s career.

November 10, 2016 ● 3 min read


There is no category of kitchen tools quite as enigmatic as knives.

No other tool is as revered, or contains so many unwritten rules. They occupy a wide space, from plastic handled boning knives to thousand dollar Japanese steel. Their variety of shapes and applications means that mastering them is a lifelong endeavor.  

At worst, knives are a crude tool used for battering food into submission; at best, they are an extension of the chef’s own body, a laser-accurate expression with no equal. A chef’s relationship with their knife is deep and complicated — here’s a look at the knives marking a culinary lifetime.  

Knives when you’re a kid.    

When you’re young, there are two types of knives: the DO NOT TOUCH THOSE type and butter knives, which your mother constantly reminds you are not toys. They live in a wooden block tucked back on the counter, or in a drawer you’re forbidden from going into. Mostly, all that you know about them is that they will cut you and they aid in making your mom cry when she cuts onions. Your grandparents use an electric knife to carve the turkey at Thanksgiving which is pretty much the coolest thing ever.  

Your parents' knives.    

They got them as a wedding gift like 600 years ago, or they inherited them from your grandparents, who got them when they got married which would actually make them 2800 years old. They are dull, and strangely greasy and come in weird shapes. There is no chef’s knife, there is no bread knife, but they have like four scimitars. Once, your uncle got your family a knife from an infomercial that was supposed to be able to cut through quarters, but your parents tested this out and wound up destroying the knife. There’s a paring knife that your dad keeps in the garage to cut twine for when he ties up cardboard for recycling. 

The knives you got in culinary school.    

They're kind of nice, but also they were made at some off-brand factory in Austria. They came in a huge set and every single one has a unique application so you carry the entire set with you everywhere you go — which eventually gets you yelled at by your sous chef. You have a lot of firsts with these knives: your first knife callous, your first ten-hour day of vegetable prep, your first very serious cut. You make them super dull, then try sharpening them and mess that up too then they're REALLY dull so you get them professionally sharpened then REALLY cut yourself. One day you loan one out and never get it back, then vow never to do that again.  

(You don’t realize it now, but you will use 
the bird’s beak that comes in this set for the rest of your career. Eventually these become your home knives that your friends are scared to use when they come over for dinner parties.)  

Your first nice knife.  

You obsess over this and honestly you can’t really afford it, but when it shows up it feels like everything has changed in your universe, even if just a little. It’s outrageously sharp and requires constant upkeep and about $300 worth of different types of sharpening stones. Your knife kit is compact now, containing a chef’s knife, a slicer, a vegetable knife, and that old bird’s beak. You go through that whole letting-your-knife-get dull-then-sharpening-it-and-making-it-even-worse thing, but eventually you sort it out on your own. Now all the cooks ask you to sharpen their knives which is flattering, but also annoying. One day the pantry cook comes in with the same fancy knife as you and you can’t figure out how the hell they could afford it making $14 an hour.  

Your first wildly expensive knife.   

A chef friend tells you that they know somebody who knows somebody who makes custom knives. They're expensive and they're made to order so despite the $3500 down payment, you won't be seeing this knife for nine months. One day it shows up, gleaming with its bone handle, sheathed in a saya, with your name tastefully engraved in the hilt. It’s beautiful and perfect and you don't even use it — mostly it just lives in the office or locked in a toolbox. It is one of your most valued possessions, a symbol of the moment when you matured as a cook and became at peace with who you are as a chef, and even as a person.

You come back from a rare vacation one day and someone has stolen it.

Your knife kit now.    

Nowadays, your knife roll is dominated more by spoons, tweezers, spatulas and cake testers than it is by knives. For the most part, you use a chef’s knife, a boning knife, and a paring knife. You’ve added a really nice pair of kitchen shears, but for the most part, the flash is gone — you’re old enough now to see your knives less as status symbols and more for what they are: indispensable tools. You give no-nonsense advice to young cooks on what to buy, and your skills at caring for your knives mean you haven't bought a new one in well over a year. You’re still no master, but your knives are absolutely a part of you now. 

You buy your parents a set of nice knives for Christmas and your mom exchanges them for an espresso machine.

Richie Nakano | Illustration by Evan Yarbrough