This man is on the cutting edge
Ask any chef what their most important bit of kitchen kit is, and the answer is the same: their knife. Pans, chopping boards, even spoons can all be improvised, whizzy gadgets like blenders and waterbaths are optional, but a sharp blade is non-negotiable. And, for many, knives become personal, an extension of the arm, something used as instinctively as the gear stick on a car.
There was a time when that knife would have been British, as we had a reputation for the finest knives in the world, proudly made from Sheffield steel. But competition from overseas has meant that the number of companies making kitchen knives in that city, and elsewhere in the UK, has dwindled. Even high-end British companies increasingly design here, but manufacture in the Far East.
Now, however, a band of bladesmiths has started producing knives that we can be proud of. One of the newest, 31-year-old Ben Edmonds, has been making them for only three years, after teaching himself by watching a video on YouTube. He left his job as a graphic designer only at the end of last year, and is making such a name for himself that two-Michelin-star chef Sat Bains has ordered a set for his restaurant, and Lamb’s Navy Rum have chosen him to appear in their True British Character advertising campaign.
Edmonds is an unlikely poster boy. With an array of naval tattoos – a square rigged ship behind one ear, a ship’s wheel on his arm, swallows and roses a-go-go – and a splendidly exuberant beard, he looks more biker than boy band.
I met him at his workshop, in a 19th-century former mill complex in Derby. Right by the double garage doors is an immaculately restored motorbike (seems I was right about the biker bit), and on the wall behind a sign reading Blok – the name of Edmonds’s company – in elegant cursive writing, backlit in red neon. Inside, all is aged red brick and low-hanging lampshades, with an axe embedded in a chopping block by the wood-burning stove. I could be looking at an art installation in a Shoreditch gallery.
But there is nothing pretentious about Edmonds. As he takes me through the knife-making process, he explains that the inspiration came from his wife, Suzanne, mother of two-week-old Franklin, and a caterer who specialises in making everything – not just the bread but also the butter. “I had someone right there to test them,” he adds. “I couldn’t imagine making any knives other than kitchen ones.”
That’s a relief. A worrying number of the knife makers one encounters online seem to make weapons too, great scimitar-like numbers for martial arts – available blunt-edged, or scarily sharp – as well as swords and spears. Edmonds, too, has had some strange requests. “People have asked for ninja throwing stars, there was a South African who wanted a machete, and a guy who said he worked in a chicken factory who wanted a huge cleaver but without any logo on – it’s a bit suspicious, isn’t it?” He turned all of them down. The process of making a knife by hand is a lengthy one, and Edmonds can make only four or five a week, as he chooses to do all the work himself. First off the blades are laser cut from a sheet of steel at a local firm, following Edmonds’s design. The blade needs to be wide enough that when chopping your knuckles don’t hit the work surface, be flat-edged at the handle end so that a good length comes into contact with the chopping surface, and curved towards the tip to allow for an efficient rocking action.
Next up is tempering, a process not dissimilar to that used to make chocolate. The metal is heated to 1,200C then “quenched” — cooled rapidly in a tub of cold oil — before being heated again to 180C and allowed to cool naturally. This sets the grain, or crystalline structure of the metal, so that the blade will be strong and flexible.
Back at Edmonds’s workshop, the blades are retempered to 180C, then ground down by hand on a series of sandpaper-like belts running around a small table-top grinder, with Edmonds adjusting the tension as he refines the angle.
It’s here that the crucial crosssection of the blade is shaped. They can be convex, which gives a tough edge that’s great for an axe, say, but hard to keep sharp. Slightly concave blades are very slender and good for fish filleting, but also fragile. Chisel shaped blades, albeit with the straight chisel edge microscopically fine, are favoured by Japanese makers, and are specific to left or right handers. Edmonds prefers to make a V-shaped blade – but a thin one. “You don’t want to push the food out as you cut. The knife needs to glide through, but I give it a tiny convex edge for strength.”
Sparks fly satisfyingly as he grinds, a function of using carbon steel rather than stainless steel which, he says, is a more boring material to work with. Stainless is convenient, certainly, as it doesn’t rust – although goodquality stainless steel chef’s knives shouldn’t go in the dishwasher as it may affect the temper. But carbon steel makes for a sharper knife that holds its edge longer, and it’s coming back into favour with chefs now, even though it does mean wiping the blade dry more often.
Grinding finished, the shape of the knife is made, but it still isn’t sharp. The handle, made of wood hardened with resin – one buyer asked for the old oak beams from his kitchen to be used – is attached, using pins made from collections of metal tubes sawn in half to reveal a pattern like a stick of rock. Edmonds sands the handle by hand, “by eye and by feel”, he says. “I like that each knife is different.” The knife blade is wrapped in vinegarsoaked cloths for a few minutes which gives it a protective matt patina, and stops the metal from reacting with the food and tainting it. Even acid food like lemons, Edmonds assures me, won’t pick up a metallic flavour.
Now for the sharpening. He gently grinds the knife on a whetstone, then rubs it slowly and tenderly down a strip of leather, a process known as stropping, to smooth it. What about the flashy, fast knife sharpening, crashing the blade against a steel? “When you see chefs doing that it’s rubbish – it should be all about accuracy and angle.” Now for the test. Edmonds holds a sheet of paper in one hand, and carves a sharp-edged sliver from the middle. Impressive, but hardly a regular kitchen task, so we move on to slicing tomatoes wafer thin, whistle through chopping an onion, and a make needle-fine julienne of some potatoes.
But, lovely as they are, with a chef’s knife coming in at £240, and a seven-month waiting list, these implements are never going to be mainstream. And while a Blok knife may be the Aston Martin of the cutting world, I shall still rely on my Nissan Micra of a blade to get me from A to B. Edmonds kindly sharpens it for me: “Whatever your knife,” he says, “give it a bit of love and it will give it back.”
Blade runner: Ben Edmonds examines Xanthe’s ‘Nissan Micra’ of a knife; above, some of Ben’s wares