FOR THOSE WHO cook every day, a good knife is essential, but the search for the right one can be overwhelming. I spent years using the same cheap butcher block I’ve had since college, full of lackluster steak knives that must be dragged through meat. When I finally decided I was ready to step up my game, I felt strangely intimidated. Is it because knives seem like a niche scene, the province of “real” chefs? Is it just because they’re sharp?
The point is, I didn’t know where to start. So I turned to Abe Shaw, all-around blade expert and founder of the online knife emporiums Eating Tools and Living Steel, for advice. Shaw has been a knife enthusiast since childhood. “My mother still has a box with the collection from my early days,” he says, when family members would bring him back knives from their travels. Starting in the late ’90s, he began going to the Blade Show in Atlanta, which he attended for almost 20 consecutive years, and he traveled, visiting the shops of bladesmiths, blacksmiths, and metalworkers as he got to know the craft.
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In 2012, Shaw launched Eating Tools, a labor of love, out of his small Brooklyn apartment. His plan was to curate a marketplace of wildly designed knives and other tools, like sporks and chopsticks. “I consider myself a gallerist,” he tells me. “I don’t intend to take credit. My goal is to showcase the work of these incredible artisans and to tell their stories.”
Seven years later, Shaw launched Living Steel, with the goal of offering a greater range of knives at more accessible price points, and collaborating with a few select custom makers to produce limited runs of high-quality knives. Though his shops are both online, he often meets with collectors in person to talk through the right knives for them.
When I ask what he would tell someone like me, a person who wants better knives but is intimidated by the options, Shaw immediately puts me at ease. “Don’t be intimidated,” he says gently. “These are the oldest tools known to man. They really are. We joke that the knife predates the fork by hundreds of thousands of years.” This makes me laugh. But there are hundreds of options. How do you choose? “At the end of the day, a knife is just a sharp piece of metal,” Shaw says. Of course there are cheap, inefficient knives (the ones I’m about to replace), but once you’re looking at quality knives, he says, “It’s just a sharp object that can separate one thing into two parts. So don’t overthink it.”
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The most important thing, Shaw tells me, is finding a knife that’s right for you. That means taking into consideration your size, the size of your cooking space, what appeals to you aesthetically, how you like a knife to feel in your hand, and how you plan to use it. For many home cooks, “this is a tool we use every day,” says Shaw. “If you’re going to have one knife, make sure it’s one that you’re comfortable doing everything with. If you don’t have a lot of space in your kitchen, get a smaller knife. If you’re tall, maybe you need a bigger knife with a longer blade in order to be comfortable.”
Shaw talks me through the features of a sampling of gorgeous knives (listed below) and leaves me with one piece of advice: “Don’t skimp. Think of it as an investment,” like other objects in your home or your wardrobe that you want to be proud of and that you want to endure. “If you cook more than a couple times a month, you’ll get your money’s worth. You’re going to reap the benefits with a tool that performs well and inspires you to cook,” he says. You may even want to learn to sharpen it. Shaw’s passion is ignited anew as our talk turns to whetstones; I can tell that’s a whole other world. The takeaway is that once you settle on the perfect, quality chef’s knife for you, you’ll also be moved to care for it. You know what they say: happy knife, happy life.
The king of versatility. This knife is hand forged from carbon san mai steel with folded iron cladding and a Japanese Blue Paper edge, with a beautiful walnut handle fitted with a solid copper ferrule. This could be your go-to knife for every task in the kitchen.
An especially beautiful take on the classic, full-size all-purpose chef’s knife. Made in collaboration with Andersson Copra, each knife is crafted by hand in Gothenburg, Sweden, from high-performance Swedish-made carbon. Shaw says, “If you have space in your kitchen for just one knife, this is it.”
Feel like really treating yourself? This one-of-a-kind hand-forged knife, made by bladesmith Joshua Prince, is a work of art that’s also durable enough to be a chef’s everyday knife. The thin razor-sharp blade and integral bolster are formed from homemade carbon Damascus steel, and the handle is a unique piece of redwood. This knife comes in a saya made from beaver-tail leather crafted by Francesca Ritchie of Teton Leather Co.
Nina Renata Aron Writer
Nina Renata Aron is a senior editor of Departures based in Oakland, California. She is the author of “Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.
Ahonen & Lamberg Illustrator
Ahonen & Lamberg is a multidisciplinary design studio based in Paris. Founded in 2006 by Finnish designers Anna Ahonen and Katariina Lamberg, the studio concentrates on art direction, creative consultancy, and graphic design.