January 18, 2012

High-end cutlery carving a larger niche for itself

By MARY MacVEAN McClatchy Newspapers

If, as the chef Sascha Lyon says, knives are one of the cool toys of his profession, then plenty of amateurs are aiming to play with the pros.

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This 8-inch Rhino chef’s knife and paring knife were both handmade by Laurence Segal of Santa Monica, Calif.

McClatchy Newspapers

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Another custom knife handmade by Segal.

"The choices for a home cook have blossomed," says Laurence Segal, who opened a shop in September in Santa Monica, Calif., where he makes knives by hand as well as sells other brands and sharpens blades.

"One thing driving the knife market is that people have much more sensitive palates than they used to," Segal says. That means discriminating eaters can – or say they can – distinguish between food that's cut or torn with a dull knife and food that's properly cut.

A second driver is men. More of them are cooking and want the tools to do it, he says.

"I'd agree with that. Men are probably our most prominent buyer of cutlery. And that's not true with our other products," says Susanna Linse, a spokeswoman for Sur La Table. "Men love their cutlery."

A $20 knife with a plastic handle will work just fine, at least for a time. But a $200 knife that's well cared for can be passed on to grandchildren. And if a $200 knife still seems mundane, there are custom-made knives designed to fit the hand that feeds with it, some that cost thousands of dollars.

Well-chosen culinary knives – rather than whatever a couple happened to get for a wedding gift – have risen significantly in popularity with the boom of television food shows, where chefs could be seen using all sorts of blades, Linse says. And Sur La Table's knife-skills classes are among the company's most popular.

In mid- to top-range knives, one choice a cook makes is between Asian-style knives, which generally have thinner blades and are lighter, and heartier European-style knives, which make cutting chicken easier.

Over the last eight years, Linse says, interest in Asian knives has grown, so much so that at one point sales of santoku blades – flat blades with a curve toward the tip – surpassed the traditional European shape.

"That has leveled off, and they're about head to head," she says.

John Pitblado, the "knife geek" at Surfas Restaurant Supply & Gourmet Food in Culver City, Calif., agrees: "Our customers are really going back to the traditional-style knife. Nothing beats a good Western chef's knife."

But Japanese knives, with the romance of a history dating to the samurai, "are here to stay," Linse says. Among the popular brands are Shun, with its distinctive oval handle, and the all-steel Global. The Global knife is in the Museum of Modern Art design collection, and it's "the sexiest look of all of our knives," Pitblado says.

"People who love it are ga-ga over it. The handle, which is covered with small divots, is filled with sand to give it balance and a substantial feel," Pitblado says. The Global santoku costs $120.

Surfas also carries the Masahiro brand, which has an "absurdly" sharp edge. "It floats through squash. And it also will float through a finger," Pitblado says.

Of the European style, popular brands include Wusthof and Henckels. Surfas sells knives from Messermeister; the 10-inch chef's knife costs $144.

Segal, the Santa Monica knife maker, sells his custom 8- or 10-inch chef's knife for around $300. His workshop is a jumble of machines and multicolored belts that grind wood handles and steel blades.

At 38, he found himself ready for a new occupation and asked himself what he loved. He answered in part: plants, especially staghorn ferns, the ocean and knives.

So he went to Barnes & Noble, found a book about making knives and got to work in his garage. "I loved it, pretty much from Day 1," he says. Rhino Custom Knives began 15 years ago and moved to Santa Monica at his wife's suggestion. "She said, 'Women would be much more interested in getting their knives sharpened if they didn't have to meet a strange man in his garage,' " Segal says.

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