This man is on the cut­ting edge

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

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

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