The knife. It’s a simple tool, and one as elemental to the development of humankind as say, the wheel, or the written word. What began as a split stone used to separate flesh from bone was, through the unfurling of time, elevated to a high art of craftsmanship, as ore was mined and melted, forged and tempered, and worked into increasingly sophisticated blades capable of slicing gracefully through just about anything.
And then came the robots. The craft of making knives by hand, a set of skills developed and passed down across thousands of generations, has largely been lost as armies of robots have been deployed in automated factories to stamp out knives of reasonable quality, faster, cheaper, and in far greater quantities than human hands ever could.
But all is not lost. A few dedicated souls scattered across the planet continue to stubbornly devote their lives to the craft of making knives by hand, and the world is a better place for it. Joel Bukiewicz of Cut Brooklyn has been turning out handmade kitchen knives from his Gowanus shop for almost seven years, to the delight of home and professional cooks in Brooklyn and across the globe.
Joel and David Liatti, a friend, designer, engineer, and the owner of 61 Local, a community-minded pub in Boerum Hill, recently made a trip, or a pilgrimage perhaps, to Japan, where knifemakers pushed the craft to new heights centuries ago, to see what they could learn from the masters who are still doing it by hand with a deep respect for the traditions and techniques handed down through the centuries.
We met up with Joel and David at 61 Local to hear all about it.
So Joel, what led you to start making kitchen knives by hand? How did you end up doing this?
My wife and I were both writers, living here in Brooklyn. We had moved down to Georgia for a while to work on novels we were both trying to finish. I finished one novel, started another, but I couldn’t find an agent for it. So I had this period of taking stock. It was a time of sort of painful realization that I’d never be a novelist. It was a little bit of a difficult thing, to give that up.
In order to work through it, I started going back to working on things that made me feel good, and since I was a kid making things with my hands was something that had always made me feel good. Making a thing…I don’t know…It lights something in me that nothing else does. So I was down in Georgia, doing lots of fishing and shooting, using knives a lot. I was making all kinds of different stuff, and at some point it seemed like it wouldn’t be so weird to try to make a knife.
So I made a knife, and then I made another and another and another. Eventually I got a proper grinder, and I was off. I started thinking it was something I could possibly do to scrape together a meager living, and I decided to give it a try.
We always intended to come back to Brooklyn. That time in rural Georgia was our year and a half adventure out of the city. When it was time to come back, it was tough – it’s always easy to leave the city, and it can be tough to get back in. It’s expensive. I needed to find a shop space as well as an apartment. We had to really save money for a while, but I was lucky. I found a very affordable space in Gowanus – an apartment with a nice shop below it. That’s where we live and I work now.
I had started out making sporting knives and outdoorsy stuff, but when I was faced with the reality of coming back to the city I had to really think about how it was all going to work. The market for handmade hunting knives is pretty limited. It’s a tight-knit subculture, and I always felt like a little bit of an outsider, or an imposter in that world of gun and knife shows and things like that. So the idea of making kitchen knives seemed really appealing.
I thought I’d see if I could make it work. It was a tricky thing to do. It took me well over a year to come up with a kitchen knife I was happy enough with to sell. The tricky one to master is the big knife. When you get the eight or ten inch chef’s knife right, the others fall right into place. It’s all about balance, contact with the cutting board, the shape of the edge, the geometry of the bevel, and how the knife holds in the hand in various positions. It took a while, but it worked out.
How did you create a market for your knives here in New York? Was that a challenge at first?
In February of the year that I came back to Brooklyn, sales were really slow. I was at a point where I was going to give it one more month and then start looking for another job.
My wife Julia is a journalist. She was a stringer at the time for the New York Post. She ended up on a story where she was staking out someone’s house. It was a freezing winter night, and all the reporters from the other papers who’d been assigned to the same story were huddled together in her car, hanging out. They started talking about what their significant others did for a living, and she said, “My husband makes kitchen knives.” A reporter for The Daily News was like, “I have to do a story for the Home section next week! Can I meet him?” She did that story, and that was it. It started. Orders didn’t start rolling in, but the press started taking note.
Edible Brooklyn did a piece, and when things really changed was when The New York Times did a big feature on the new Brooklyn food movement and they included me in it. That brought the first spike in orders. People all over the world were reading that story. And that’s when I really first felt like this all might actually work.
Was there ever a moment when you sold a knife to a well-known chef or somebody, and thought, “OK, this is really working…”
Not really. I’ve sold knives to a few well-known chefs. But the greatest thing to me about working in the food world is that there’s an unbelievable amount of talent, passion and commitment out there among chefs who aren’t on TV, who aren’t brand names. I don’t know where else you find that much talent, on that level, across the board in any industry. I’ll get emails from people and I’ll look them up and be like, “Holy shit this guy won a Beard award!” But mostly I just sell people knives and shake their hands and try not to get too into who they are.
Actually, a weirdly high percentage of my customers have come from my neighborhood and the surrounding neighborhoods. I sell knives to people all over the world, but the big majority of my customers live within a few miles of the shop. And I’m really proud of that. I’m much more proud of that than I ever am of selling a knife to someone who happens to be famous.
So how did the idea for the Japan trip come up?
I never, for the first five or six years, visited another knifemaker’s shop. So everything I do, the way I grind, cut, everything, comes from just having learned by an incredible amount of trial and error.
Dave comes from a manufacturing and engineering background. He’s a friend of mine and he’d come hang out at the shop from time to time, and I think he could see that some of the stuff I was doing could be improved upon – made a little more efficient without compromising the quality and handmade nature of the knives. I always joke with Dave that’s he’s going to drive me right out of the stone age, and straight into the 19th century. [laughter.]
David: I’d go down to the shop to see Joel when he was working on knives. We’d talk about knives, and the product and process and about what it all means to him. What’s important to him. We talked a lot about where he wanted to go with the knives – if he’d have any interest in doing a second line, in doing more knives, and if so, what he’d be comfortable changing, and what he wouldn’t be comfortable changing in the way he makes his knives. So we had a lot of conversations, and a few beers.
And through all that, Japan kept coming up. Japan has been known for a long time for producing some of the highest quality knives at very competitive prices. We just talked a lot about wanting to know how they do it.
Joel: I see a lot of knives come through the shop, because I also sharpen knives for people. I see it all, and it’s really evident that there are only a few places producing great knives. In France, there was a kind of golden age of knifemaking in the forties, fifties and sixties. Less so today. They make great knives around Sheffield, England. And Japan. The best knives at the best price points consistently come from Japan.
I’d see these knives come through the shop from Japan, and know they were $120 knives, and I’d just say, “How the fuck do they make this happen? This is all but perfect. $120!? How do they do that?”
So even before we went to Japan I had huge respect for their knives. It was like magic. I mean, these are handmade knives of extremely high quality. I was like, “Is a genie making these? What’s going on here!?”
There’s a real handmade element to them. We’ve been to knife factories where everything is done by robots and giant machines. You look at most German knives, and that’s what’s going on there. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad product, but there’s something special about a knife that’s made by hand. And the more hand work, the more special the knife. The stuff coming out of Japan is sick. Really awesome.
A little over a year ago, a woman named Yuko Suzuki visited my shop. She works in public relations for small producers in Japan – small specialty farmers, guys who make miso, chefs. She had recently started working with a knifemakers in the town of Seki, which is at the foot of the Gifu mountains, about an hour north of Nagoya, kind of right in the middle of the main island of Honshu. Seki has been famous for its knives for a long, long time, but it’s kind of out of the way. She was working with the local knifemakers to try to develop Seki into a destination for tourists and people interested in great knives and the tradition of knifemaking in Japan.
She heard about us and came to visit to see what we do. She was really interested in how we were able to be successful, and why. She was super nice. I liked her, and I liked what she was trying to do, and it was pretty quickly apparent to me that I’d do whatever I could to help her out. I said, “First of all, there’s a huge market for good knives here. Japanese knives are hot, and we don’t see stuff coming directly from the makers in your town. If you can find a way to market their knives in New York, I think you could have great success.”
I suggested renting a cheap studio in Brooklyn and bringing makers through to spend a month or so in residence, making knives, and opening up the shop to people to see knives being made, and to sell the knives. My shop is ridiculous. We have a lot of room. At some point I said, “You know, if you want to bring someone over, we’ll put them up here for a couple months.” I figured I could learn something from these guys and it’d be a win-win.
Two days later I got an email from her saying, “How do we make this happen?”
She had found a guy who she said was a polisher at a knifemaking shop in Seki who’d love to come over. I was a little hesitant. I was hoping to have someone who was a forger or who had a broad set of skills I could learn from. A polisher? I was picturing a guy just rubbing away at knives all day, making them shiny.
I said, “How about this? Maybe I should go over there to meet these guys first, and then we’ll move forward with hosting someone here.”
It turns out that the meaning of ‘polisher’ was totally lost in translation. In Japan, a polisher grinds, finishes – all the same work I spend a lot of my day doing.
So the opportunity to go to Japan to meet a bunch of knifemakers basically just walked in the door. We thought it would have been crazy not to take it.
So tell us about Seki. How does the knifemaking work there?
There are about two hundred small family knifemaking shops in Seki. They’ve divided the process into six steps, and each of these little family shops specializes in one of the steps. The grinders just grind. There’s a guy that just makes wooden sheaths. Everything is done by hand, but in different steps by different people in their own little shops. That’s how it works.
The shops themselves are almost always right next to the family house. So you’ll drive up to a house in town, and there’s a garage or outbuilding that’s used as a shop space right next to it. It’s interesting – just about every shop was staffed by a father in their sixties, and a son in their thirties. There are no signs or anything on the shops – no branding, no marketing – they just work their asses off. They do the same thing over and over, and they’ve been doing it for generations. They reach perfection with this work. They do it perfectly.
And are they then feeding their part of the work up to big brands who sell them? How does that work?
These individual makers are incredibly skilled at what they do, and they’re basically completely anonymous. They’ll get contracts. A brand will place an order for a few thousand knives, and these guys all have their networks of other guys who handle each of the various parts of the knifemaking process. So the contract comes in, and they pick and choose the shops they want to handle each part of the process. The knives make their way in stages through each shop, and in the end they end up being stamped with a brand and sold. These guys do all the work by hand, with incredible skill developed and refined across the generations, but their name is never associated with the product.
So one of the big things that came out of the trip, is that we’re going to do a collaboration with some of these guys. What’s really important to me is telling their stories. They’ve been doing this for generations, completely anonymously. Telling their stories is the whole point of the project. We’re arranging it so they’ll be doing the cutting, bolstering and grinding, and I’ll do all the handle work, sharpening and the final finish. When the knife is done, we’ll have their name on one side of the blade and Cut Brooklyn on the other.
We visited a lot of shops, but met with two specific makers in Seki to discuss collaborating – their names are Okuda and Saruwatari. They just work. They work all the time, making knives by hand. I felt a personal connection to these guys. To the way they work. Because without really having had a model to learn from, I found that what I’ve been doing in my shop for eight years is very similar to what they’ve been doing in Seki for generations.
They’ve been able to make lives for themselves for generations, doing this work, by hand, at the highest level. I found that really validating and inspiring. Because for years, I’ve been unsure. I’ve felt like, “I hope I can make this work. Maybe this can be my world.” After seeing them, and the whole knifemaking community in Seki, I felt like, “I can make this happen.” These guys have been doing this for ages, passing the knowledge and skill and livelihood down to their sons. I thought, “Why can’t I do the same thing?”
I mean, Saruwatari’s family has been living on the same plot of land for nine generations. Making knives for nine generations. We met with him and Okuda in his living room, which was a traditional Japanese room with tatami mats and rice paper walls. You sit on the floor. It was amazing. His house and his shop are on a river that comes out of the mountains, at a specific spot that’s really famous for fishing a certain type of trout.
Obviously, his family has become pretty good at fishing. One of his sons is a world-class fisherman. He’s got a trophy case filled with Shimano Cups! [laughter.] It’s amazing right? Because he grew up on a famous fishing hole, fishing all the time. Saruwatari rents fishing poles to people and lets them fish, all while he’s making knives. How awesome is that? [laughter.]
So what did you learn in Japan? You kind of reinvented the wheel, teaching yourself to make knives by hand through trial and error, with very little guidance. You and Dave go to Japan, where they’ve been making knives of the highest quality for centuries, based on knowledge passed down from father to son. What did you take away from it?
At Saruwatari’s shop, they have all the knives they’re getting ready to work on in crates filled with cooling liquid to keep them from rusting. There were thousands and thousands of them, and they would just rip through them, grinding them one by one, by hand, all day. They were grinding thousands of knives a week, by hand. Seeing that made me realize what’s possible. It was gratifying to see what they do and how they do it. It made me realize there’s room to push, to grow, to do more.
And in terms of technique there were a myriad of little things that I saw that made me think, “Oh damn, look at that!” – Where people had figured out ways to do things that normally take me twenty minutes, in three minutes.
One of the biggest things for me was finding a new technique for grinding the knives. I’ve always gone through a pair of grinding gloves every month. They get really chewed up. I have to rebuild them with electrical tape after just about every hour of grinding time. I’m constantly bloodying my hands. I try to grind early in the week to give myself enough time to heal for the next week. And that’s been going on for eight years. It fucking hurts! I don’t love that part of it. And that’s always happened because I’ve always done my grinding by holding my blades directly in my hands while I grind against the belt.
In Seki, one of the things that jumped out at me right away was that they grind completely differently. They secure the blade to a board, then hold each end of the board with their hands while working the blade against the grinder, so their hands never come into contact with it.
Grinding a big knife is like a boxing match. So much energy and force is spent tweaking it to get it just right. You have this huge piece of steel that you have to really lay into, but when it’s done at its edge it has to be about 5/1000ths of an inch thick – a tiny bit thicker than a piece of paper – and it has to be the same width all along. And you’re doing this by hand. One little twitch and you’re done.
When you use a board, you have two handles on either end, so the fulcrum is between your hands, rather than in them. You have a little bit less control, but you have a lot more power.
The first thing I did when I got home was to get a two by four, hammer in a few bent nails to hold the blade, and I’ve been grinding on that thing ever since. It’s a different technique, and I’m still getting used to it. Now I’m grinding on the board most of the way, and finishing it by hand. I’ll be able to finish it on the board fairly soon. But it was one of those little, simple things that changed everything. I was like, “How is it possible that I never thought of this!?”
It doesn’t save me much time, but it feels like I’m probably prolonging my career by reducing the risk and frequency of injury. Getting my hands away from the belt is really nice.
David: Immediately after we got back, Joel was like, “I’ve already implemented all these things…I’m grinding on the board, I got a mister to keep the grinding belt cooler…” Joel uses different equipment than they do in Seki – he uses a belt grinder instead of the big spinning stone grinders they use in Japan. But he’s created his own hybrid system, adapting some simple Japanese techniques to his equipment to create something totally unique. And that’s really cool.
It was a really special experience to go there and learn these techniques. We weren’t sure how forthcoming they’d be about access to their shops, but they were completely open.
But we didn’t just learn about techniques and process. We learned a lot from the culture in Japan, too. Just watching the way the younger knifemakers listened to the older ones – the attention, the respect – it was striking to see the degree to which the younger generation is respectful to the older generations and their knowledge and techniques.
There was a lot to take back from Japan beyond the context of making knives. I think that looking at craftsmanship in general in different cultures, the way people make things – and not just the techniques, but the approach and the relationships and all of those things – opens up a whole new way of viewing humanity, and community. You see in Japan that technique, craft, engineering, knowledge, tradition and the great respect they have for those things, are rooted in their culture in deeper and very different ways than they are here, and that manifests itself in many ways beyond the workshop – it manifests itself in their lifestyle. It’s really cool, and for me, it’s inspiring.
So to try to absorb a little of that and bring some of that back – I think that sort of thing is good. For me, looking at the way people make things is a really effective way to try to understand different cultures. For me, this was the ideal vacation. Factory visits. [laughter.]
Another way those sorts of Japanese values manifest themselves is in the food…
Joel: Yeah, one of the things that was fantastic about the trip was that Yuko, who acted as our guide and translator throughout the trip, is about as hooked into the food world in Japan as you can be. On our last night in Nagoya, we were like, “Let’s just go out for a quick dinner.” So she took us to this place in an office building. That was sort of strange, but you see that in Japan. You take the elevator up to the sixth floor, and it opens up onto this nice, simple restaurant.
At all the restaurants we went to it was always one dude behind the counter, doing everything. Running the whole show. Working really hard, but never sweating. Totally in control. Crushing it.
Dave: In Japan, it seems like people tend to be really good at what they do, but totally humble about it.
Joel: In this place, they only serve chicken, and only one very specific, very special kind of chicken from the Nagoya region. We didn’t really know what to expect. So we sit down, and a few minutes later, a huge platter of chicken sashimi comes out to the table. Basically, an entire chicken, deconstructed, raw. We had gizzard, a couple different types of liver – fatty liver and non-fatty liver, heart – the whole chicken was on the plate. A little shocking to American sensibilities, but it was beautiful. Really fresh. Dave had a tough time trying to decide what kind of beer to order with the chicken sashimi. [laughter.]
Another time, in Seki, Yuko took us to a place where the guy makes what she said is the best tempura she’s ever had. They cook really seasonally, and on the day we went there, it was the season for sansai, these wild spring mountain vegetables. It’s a two week season every year that happens when things like fiddlehead ferns and all kinds of other shoots and sprouts start popping up. So he made this platter of mountain vegetables in different ways, and the tempura was incredible. The batter somehow perfectly coated every individual leaf of each plant, and it was so light that it didn’t obscure the natural form of the things at all. It was kind of unbelievable.
Dave: It was as if he had somehow perfectly crystallized these wild spring mountain vegetables in edible form. It was amazing. And this is just some guy, you know? He’s just doing his job. He’s not famous. He’s got a little restaurant in a little town, and the work is outstanding.
And we saw a lot that sort of thing a lot in Japan – not just in food, but in everything.
Joel: It’s just that whole approach. Here we’ve got this celebrity culture. It’s very different there.
It makes me think of the woman who makes the pins for my knives. She makes these exquisite pins while sitting at the kitchen table in her house in this tiny town in Oregon. And I think she’s the best in the world at what she does. Very, very few people know who she is or appreciate what she does, but she works very hard to do what she does by hand, with the highest level of care and quality, in relative anonymity. There’s a lot more of that in Japan than there is here – people working incredibly hard to make things of exquisitely high quality, driven by little more than the love of what they give to the world.
Dave: There’s something very pure about it, and human.
Joel: I just think it’s a really beautiful way to live. There’s something that makes me almost want to cry when I encounter that. It’s inspiring.
I didn’t know what to expect from the trip. We brought a lot back from it. What’s great is that it’s not done yet. Some of the guys we met will be coming here to work. We’ll see what happens with the project to collaborate on knives.
Dave: And it goes both ways. Who knows what the guys from Seki will discover and learn when they’re working here in New York?
Joel: When you make things with your hands it’s easy to end up in an existence where you’re isolated, locked up in your shop working for three hundred days out of the year. The idea of collaborating with guys from halfway around the world who make some of the highest quality knives on the planet, and whose families have been doing this for generations – the idea of making knives with these guys – is really exciting. Who knows what will happen or where it will go? But whatever it is, it’s going to be good. It’s only going to get better.
OK Joel, last question’s for you – what, to you, makes a good knife?
I think the first thing that’s really important is that it needs to move through whatever you’re cutting with great ease. You want to steer a knife, not push it or apply force. When you have to apply force, you’re going to crush the food, not cut it. And it’s not just about sharpness – it’s about how thin the bevel is ground. In order for a thin bevel to work on a knife, you need a high quality steel and a good grind.
Picking the right knife for you is important. It’s subjective. If you’re pretty fancy with your knife skills, doing lots of cuts off the board, you probably want a longer, flatter knife. If you work with more of a rocking motion, on the board, you want something with a solid belly and a good roll to the edge. You don’t want something flat.
Design is important too. A good knife for you has to be a knife that hits you when you see it from afar. There’s got to be a visceral attraction. If it’s just a tool to you, you’re just going to chuck it in a drawer. If it’s something that’s beautiful to you, you’re going to take care of it, and a good knife needs to be taken care of or it won’t be a good knife for very long.
In terms of a great knife? I think there’s something about a handmade knife that’s very appealing, and a little bit difficult to articulate. In a handmade knife, a bunch of handmade components come together in a way that can be greater than the sum of the individual parts. When I make a knife, I’m fabricating something of my own design. I understand that design better than anybody else possibly could. Throughout the process of making the knife, I’m making little adjustments, feeling it, and I’m not going to let anything get screwed up or let any flaws slip by. It’s just a completely different calculus than if you’re working with a product that’s factory assembled or made by robots. They might look similar, but they’re very different things.