TIM HAYWARD: MY LIFE IN KNIVES
Posted on August 24 2021
Cook, Financial Times food critic and author of Knife, Tim Hayward, gives us the potted history of his lifelong obsession with kitchen knives.
I guess my first knife was the one I found in the drawer in my childhood home. God knows where mum had ever picked up a Sabatier, it definitely wasn’t her style. This being the 70s, it was a half decent carbon steel blade, and because mum had no idea how to use it, it sat in the drawer and rusted. I still have no idea what made me take it out, clean it up with steel wool and put an edge on it. Maybe I was showing early signs of obsession. I certainly didn’t do any cooking with it. I just put it back in the drawer for mum and diligently kept putting an edge back on it every couple of weeks. Then one day I came into the kitchen and found her diligently blunting it with a steel. “I can’t stand the thing”, she said. “It’ll do someone an injury”.
We like to think that working chefs always have great knives to hand, but there’s a dirty secret in professional kitchens. Though some chefs keep rolls of their own knives, there is more often a collection of general knives that’s shared. These are the ones with the colour-coded, plastic handles, to meet regulations about food hygiene and cross contamination. They are serviceable and cheap. They need to be because very few young cooks have time for the routines of stone sharpening and honing on a simple steel. Instead they’ll use a ‘diamond’ steel, a rod with diamond dust bonded to its surface. A diamond steel will put an edge on a steel bar in a few seconds by chewing away at it with an aggressive abrasive action. It keeps knives as sharp as they need to be, as long as you replace them every six months or so.
When I first worked in professional kitchens, like most cooks of my age, I was trained in the French tradition. The standard roll was built around the 10” chef’s knife, the ‘fait tout’ of classical cooking. It was always said that a cook should be able to do anything with the standard 10”, from crushing garlic to butchering a side of pork, from chiffonade-ing mint to carving a pineapple. This was probably true, but I could somehow never feel truly in control of something that felt like a sabre. Instead I quickly settled on the smaller 8” and immediately felt much more comfortable. My first, if my memory serves, was bought in the States, where I was then cooking in a sweaty kitchen in the American deep south, it was a Wusthof.
As I have quite large hands I was seduced by a particular model, which had about a half inch of extra depth in the blade. It gave it a little more reassuring weight and a bit more clearance around my knuckles. It served me beautifully, and if I’m ever asked to work in a professional kitchen these days, I still carefully tuck it into my roll. One of the things my book, Knife, has taught me is that different knives fit different occasions. If I’m cooking something delicate, at home, where the handling of the tool is part of the pleasure, I want one of my hand-made knives. Give me a sack of onions to chop or a big box of woody carrots and I still, at least for now, default to the Wusthof.
One of the big discoveries in researching the book was breaking down the ways that chefs cut. The grips they take on the handles and the physical path of the cut that results. I ended up interviewing a surgeon, a leatherworker, a fencer, a butcher and an ex-Royal Marine, taking polaroids and sketches of how they held blades. I realised that the grip subtly shifts to increase accuracy of the cut, to increase power or twisting leverage and began to look closer at the way I held my own knives.
By this point I was no longer working in professional kitchens much and my favourite blade for home cooking had shifted to a strange hybrid - a deba, the Japanese fish filleting knife, from Global. It had a deeper, shorter blade than my western chef’s knife and, because I’d learned to keep it wickedly sharp, I needed much less pressure to cut. My grip had subtly shifted, no longer around the handle, but more and more a kind of pinch along the back of the blade with the handle just occasionally touching my palm as I worked. Then a Chinese friend introduced me to a cai dao.
The cai dao is what Westerners often incorrectly refer to as a Chinese chopper or cleaver. There is a cleaver in Chinese cookery, for butchering big pieces of meat. The cai dao, though a similar shape, is much thinner. Lighter, in many cases, than a 10”chef knife. A skilled user can mince meat finely, peel and chop vegetables with incredible delicacy, crush garlic or spices with the side of the blade and then use it to scoop up ingredients to take to the wok.
Last year I started experimenting with a set of tiny blade ‘fragments’, all metal, but inspired by the flint shards that our Neolithic used as butchering blades and scrapers. The jury is still out on that idea and it gets me some funny looks in kitchens. Also, finally yielding to the notion of pinch grip and minimised handle, I tried, for a while, a thin blade about the size and shape of a credit card, thickening ever so slightly to one corner. That looks pretty space age, but I don’t think it’s going to completely revolutionise knife design.
I think the cai dao might be the culmination of my journey, at least for a while.
I was lucky to get the chance to dive really deeply into knives for the book. I got the chance to play with everything from the cheapest, effectively disposable knives, right through to six-thousand pound blades made by Japanese craftsmen. But the main thing that came out of all the research was how completely personal a knife can be. Somewhere out there, there’s a perfect blade for every cook. It might not come straight off the shelf but by owning the knife, taking care of it and working with it regularly, its shape will adapt to your needs, and your technique will adapt to the blade.
It sounds a little crazy and it takes a little time, but choosing and buying your knife is just the start of something. If it doesn’t sound too hippy dippy, it’s really a relationship.