6th September 2016
Interview: Alice Hancock
Illustration: Tim Laing
I was in a tapas bar called Cal Pep in Barcelona when I realised I had to write about knives. I was watching the cook using an amazingly worn little knife. It wasn’t like any other knife I’d ever seen and the way he was using it was unique. I realised then that there’s a weird symbiosis between user and knife that is, as far as I know, unlike any other tool that humans use.
I have always had a sort of macho bloke interest in cooking tools but the book comes out of something more peculiar and emotional. I can’t think of anything else to call it except a “relationship” with the knife. My first was with an old Sabatier I found in someone’s garden shed. I cleaned it up and still have it in a drawer somewhere.
The funny thing about writing a book about knives is realising that they adapt to you as you adapt to them. The truly great knife is the one you’ve chosen, worked with and loved. And, every day it becomes more individual – and more lovely.
If I get a new knife I like to do a ton of onions as finely as I can – just to get to know it. I’ve eaten a lot of French onion soup. Recently I got a new Japanese boning knife so I’ve been obsessed with speed-boning chickens. Fortunately I own a small restaurant so my obsessions are rarely wasted.
You can find anything satisfying to cut as long as it is with the right knife. We’ve evolved these implements over thousands of years to do a particular job well. I love cutting sashimi with a £6,000 Yanagi ba as much as I love using my Mum’s old bread knife on a slightly stale bloomer in order to make the world’s best toast.
Recently I got a new Japanese boning knife so I’ve been obsessed with speed-boning chickens. Fortunately I own a small restaurant so my obsessions are rarely wasted
People do abuse their knives. Mostly they end up cutting themselves, which seems entirely fair. That said, putting a good knife in the dishwasher when it has done nothing to deserve it – that’s just unreasonable cruelty.
The best thing to cut on is end-grain beech wood. It’s the traditional stuff that butcher’s blocks are made of. If you look at the board and it’s made up of squares, that’s the cross section of the beech blocks they use to make it. Because it’s the end of the grain, the blade cuts down between the fibres and causes less damage.
If there’s another piece of cutlery I’m picky about, it’s soup spoons. I have a weird thing about them. They have to be just right and – I probably shouldn’t admit this – when I find a good one I have been known to pocket it. The experience of trying to consume soup from the wrong spoon, particularly when you have a beard and a moustache, can be scarring.
There are many ways to hold a knife. Each grip applies a varying level of force and control to the blade. Different knives are evolved to work with different grips. You hold a cleaver in the same way that you’d hold a hammer, but you hold a more delicate blade as you might a paintbrush or as a surgeon holds a scalpel.
You hold a cleaver in the same way that you’d hold a hammer, but you hold a more delicate blade as you might a paintbrush or as a surgeon holds a scalpel
The myth that the Japanese make the best knives is partially true. Japanese knives are superb, but some of the most innovative work is being done by bladesmiths in other countries. The US is producing some spectacular knives at the moment and the UK is catching up fast. In fact, there’s a young bloke in Bristol called Joel Black who I have my eye on. He’s turning out some amazing knives.
It is always worth paying more for a better knife. No question.
Japanese waterstones are a surprisingly easy way to sharpen knives to a lethal degree. And in the way they make you interact with the knife, they also reinforce your relationship with it. That said, if you just need a sharp knife fast then Japanese “wheel” sharpeners do a brilliant and simple job.
The first time I walked into a professional kitchen I knew I was hooked. This was a thing I could do and that’s been it ever since. The first piece of writing I had published about food wasn’t actually about food though. Unsurprisingly it was a piece for the Guardian about useless kitchen gadgets. Blimey I’m getting typecast.
Knife: Culture, Craft and Cult of the Cook’s Knife Buy from is out on 3rd November. For more info, go to timhayward.com
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