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Food Issue - Atlanta chefs and their knives

The stories behind the steel in some of the city's best kitchens

Using my knife makes me feel invincible, there is really no other word to describe it. Much like a samurai and his sword, or a Jedi and his light saber, it's all I need. — Bradley Chance, sous chef, The Spence

To a chef, to a cook, to a butcher, the knife is everything. It is the universal tool of the trade, regardless of cuisine, regardless of ambition, regardless of status or celebrity. It is the physical manifestation of their ability to get it done in the kitchen.

The knife can be a fetish, an object of desire, an obsession. Or it can simply be a tool — an object that through years and years of use disappears from the realm of objectivity and becomes an extension of the hand, an appendage fused with the chef who wields it. There's a reason Bravo's "Top Chef" chose to dispatch losers with the phrase, "pack your knives and go." Nothing else could cut closer to the heart of a chef's cooking.

To ask a chef about his (or her) knives is to seek his outlook on his craft. Some are like proud fanboys at Dragon*Con, eager to show off their fanaticism and prove their merit, to demonstrate their dedication to the cult of the knife. Some are maintenance men, technicians, diligently sharpening, keeping things in order, and focused squarely on results. Regardless of outlook, just about every chef, cook, and butcher seems to have a story about their knives, some connection that goes beyond functionality and taps into their personal story. Here are a few of those stories.

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Bradley Chance, The Spence

First off, I will explain why my knife carries the moniker Samuel L. Jackson. It's quite simple really: Who is the baddest motherfucker on the planet? I don't think I even need to answer that question.

Knives, for me, are very much addicting. I always want more. I went to the Korin knife store in New York and was beside myself the entire time. I got to hold a $7,000 Japanese knife. I would sell my soul for that knife.

My favorite brand of knife and the one I most use is a Misono UX10. It's a 10.5-inch Sujihiki, or "slicer." I prefer a narrower blade compared to a regular chef's knife. Then there's my Suisin Honyaki Yanagi, which is the most widely used style of sushi knife. The Japanese-style knife usually has a bamboo handle and a blade with a single edge on it, whereas a traditional, or Western-style has a double-edge blade. This Suisin knife was worth every penny. They run in the hundreds of dollars. I really only use it for cutting fish, but I love it so much, I plan on having it tattooed on my left arm opposite the Misono on my right.

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Mihoko Obunai, Chef/Consultant/"Ramen Girl" with Miso Izakaya

My oldest knife is very special. It comes from Japan, from a family of knife makers there who I know, and I have been using their knife since I graduated from culinary school 17 years ago. My knife is one of a kind, the only one in the world. My hand is smaller than most chefs', so I really like small knives, and this one fits me so well. Other cooks in the kitchen can't even use this knife. This knife is not the type of knife you would use to hack up chicken bones or open a beer bottle. (I could, but I wouldn't!) It is sensitive but strong, almost like a sword.

Actually, my knife is in Japan right now to be sharpened and will be sent back to me, so I am missing it. I do worry a little bit that something could happen to it, but I trust the mail from Japan! But I also now have another very special knife from Japan, also from a small family of knife makers called Takamura Hamono. My ramen mentor, chef Nakamura of Ramen Lab, introduced me to these unique knives, and I feel very fortunate to have one. Many of the top chefs in the world are now using these knives from Japan.

As I get older, I appreciate my home country more, where I come from. The fact that my knife comes from a small Japanese family business, that they care about the person they make each knife for, that they know me — it's really special. Now that I'm focusing on ramen and Japanese cooking again, it helps me share the Japanese culture. I want other chefs to know the story of these great, small town knife makers.

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Jordan Wakefield, Meehan's Public House

I have certain knives that I keep put away, hidden, because I don't trust anyone else to use them. I love my Wüsthof boning knife that I use to break down and clean whole animals, my CCK Big Rhino cleaver, and my 10-inch Hammer Stahl chef's knife.

My boning knife just lets me get all up inside the animal and clean around bones and cartilage and preserve the quality of the meat. The cleaver is my go-to for when I cook all my barbecue. And the Hammer Stahl chef's knife just has very good balance in the steel. Actually, I use my Hammer Stahl only on special occasions, like holiday meals or if I'm making a special dinner for the lady at the house. But other than that, those stay locked away.

My old Japanese-style cleaver was given to me while I was working at the Homestead Resort in Virginia. The chef gave it to me, and I remember thinking it was so cool, and so expensive. But about a year later, I looked it up and it was only worth about 10 bucks! But to this day I still use it like crazy, and it is a hell of a knife. It holds a great blade.

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Duane Nutter, One Flew South

Working in the airport at One Flew South, we have to keep everything chained to the counter for security purposes, which is a whole other thing to worry about on top of typical kitchen concerns. I don't often get to use the knives I really care about. Just yesterday, we had one of our quarterly knife inspections by the health inspectors. I had gotten rid of three bad knives and they were all over it, asking where the knives went, how I disposed of them.

There's a 24-inch-long plastic-wrapped cable tying each knife to the counter — it actually makes things not so safe for the cooks — and I had to use knives with plastic handles that I knew I could drill a hole in to secure the cord. They're cheap knives that we can get the blade back quick on, but then replace a couple times a year. We get in whole salmon, and it's a trick to take off the heads and slice them effectively with the knives we have. It was crazy the first time we had to do that in this kitchen, breaking down the fish a whole different way than we would typically do it because of the knives. And, in this kitchen, the knives don't belong to any individual cook, so they do get beat up a bit more than they would typically. The knives that we do have, it influences what we serve, how we break things down. It all comes down to the knives we can use.

Since I was 19, I've had this big old scimitar. It's like a baby sword that's about a 12-inch blade. It's been my main knife over the years, breaking down chops, big primal butchering, cutting right through watermelon because the blade's so long. But I only get to use it at special events now since I can't use it at One Flew South. I get all excited now when I get to break out my baby.

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Eli Kirshtein, Chef/Consultant

I have a 12-inch Sabatier chef knife that probably weighs two pounds. It was a gift from Richard Blais, who got it in culinary school, and he said that if I could cut accurately with that knife, I could do anything. This knife has killed turtles, it has sabred open Champagne bottles. It has personality. It's an heirloom.

I have another knife I got when I was 17 or so, a Mizuno slicer, carbon steel. I've used it a ton over 12 years or so, and it has lost close to an inch in length with all the cutting and sharpening. It has lots of personal value. I'm so paranoid about it, I actually have trouble taking it with me places. Once when I was in New York, I was running late to catch a plane, didn't have time to check bags. I had my Mizuno with me and ended up paying off a skycap to hold it for me to retrieve later! I can't travel with that knife anymore.

My Nenox chef's knife, which I bought probably seven or eight years ago, has a beautiful handle made from Chinese quince wood. At first, I just thought it was almost too precious to use. But as I did, and as I realized that it was meant to be used, I became happier with it.

As much as I care about my knives, I see it becoming almost a false fetish for some people. No one needs 45 knives — it's ridiculous. So much of the higher end of cooking these days is about finding the most esoteric ingredient, and the knives are no different, having something no one else has. A good chef can have just one knife, focus on keeping it sharp, and master the motions, the mechanics, of cutting properly. As much as we obsess over knives, it's really the magician, not the wand that makes the magic.

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Chad Clevenger, Alma Cocina

I only use Japanese knives. My first Japanese knife I bought was a Kasumi Sujihiki about eight years ago, and I worked it hard. I really got my money's worth. It has a lot of memories tied to it, and now it stays tucked safely away, only to be brought out when showing my knives off. My favorite knife in my bag right now would be a toss-up between my new Hattori Gyuto and my Kanetsugu Santoku. They both have a great feel from the weight, the blades are super thin and stay incredibly sharp. Using them makes me feel like a badass ninja with a samurai sword ready to cut anything! Actually with the Hattori Gyuto, at first I didn't like it, and when I held it I was like, "Holy shit this thing is huge." After a few days, though, I got used to the size and now I love it. At the end of the day, it's the tool I use to create wonderful dishes that make people smile.

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Colin Miles, Butcher/Charcuterist, Leon's Full Service and Pura Vida

I don't really have any hand-me-downs or knives given to me by a dying friend. However, just the other day I broke a knife that had belonged to my dad. It was just some random French knife he had, nothing special. Still, I couldn't help but feel bad. I'm not even sure he knew I had it.

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John Metz, Marlow's Tavern

My favorite knife is my Japanese cleaver, which I bought in Japan and have had for almost 20 years. It's about 12 inches long and extremely thin. I have never had to sharpen it, and it has been used a ton. It's lightweight, with a wooden handle with Japanese symbols, and very unique. It's razor sharp, and the best slicing knife I have ever used. If you don't have a sharp knife, you should not be allowed to cut anything in the kitchen. A sharp knife is the most valuable piece of equipment in every kitchen in the world.

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Zeb Stevenson, Livingston Restaurant+Bar (pictured)

I recently retired a dear old friend of mine. My crew affectionately referred to it as "the toothpick." I knew it simply as "my boning knife." Regardless of its name, I came to love that knife, and, on the day that it finally saw its last act of service, I'll admit that I felt some level of sadness.

The knife was given to me 12 years ago by an old chef. I had lost my boning knife at work and was evidently vocal enough about it that she bought me a replacement. Looking back I'm sure that she bought it for no other reason than to shut me up. It worked.

That knife and I have been through it all. From line cook to executive chef and every stage in between I used that knife. I learned to cut fish and butcher whole animals with it, and I used it enough that my thumb rubbed a groove in the handle. No other tool has ever conformed to me the way that it did.

I once lost it, along with my entire knife kit, for about nine months when I was foolish enough to leave it at an event. I remember getting the call when the knives had been found. Out of all of them I was happiest to have that particular one back.

Years and years of sharpening took its toll eventually, wearing the blade down to a thin and short point about 4 inches long, and little more than a quarter of an inch thick at the base. I continued to use it knowing that its days were numbered. One day it happened.

About two months ago I was butchering a pig and made an inattentive move. The tip of "the toothpick" got wedged in a joint and snapped off, bending the rest of the blade in the process. I thought about hammering and grinding it down to save it and get a little bit more work out of it, but decided not to.

I guess I gave it the burial suited to a chef's knife. I didn't frame it or display it prominently. I simply wrapped it in a towel, taped it up and tossed it in the dumpster on my way out. To date, I still haven't purchased another boning knife. Eventually there will be another, but it will never be anything like the toothpick.

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And to finish, the words of chef Takao Moriuchi, of Taka Sushi and Passion, who manages to make the simple description of the importance of a good sushi knife and good technique sound like a Zen koan:

Fish meat is very tender and delicate.

We can not push, zigzag. We just need pull or draw.

Understand? It is not power skill; it is technique.



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