by Remy Tumin
A chef’s knife is personal. Whether Japanese or German, a family heirloom or a wholesale blade—for some, it’s an emotional attachment, for others it’s simply a part of their daily practice. Fishmonger Stanley Larsen sees his knife as purely utilitarian, while for chef Dan Sauer, his Henkel is a (sharp) reminder of why he got into the business of food. Chefs know the weight of the knife in their hand, how the grip feels against their skin, and that familiar rock of the blade as they set to work.
BUTCHER/OWNER OF SHIRETOWN MEATS / Favorite knife tool: The steel
David Vaughn has been cutting meat for 55 years. He’s seen carbon steel replaced by stainless steel, wood handles replaced by plastic grips, knife trends come and go. When he’s not butchering meat in his pristine white butcher’s coat, David sharpens knives for $3 a pop at Shiretown. His process starts on a coarse stone, and he gradually moves the knife down to a fine stone, finishing it up with a steel. (A steel doesn’t sharpen the knife—it only hones it, he explained—and it’s important to steel your knife at the same degree that it’s been sharpened.) David has an extensive knife collection, and has been around knives for so long that he can rattle off the differences between them: a French knife (or chef’s knife) is great for dicing vegetables, steak knives give the best chop, and boning knives—well, that one speaks for itself. But as he’s learned: the key to any good knife is the point of the blade.
OWNER OF MENEMSHA FISH MARKET / Favorite knife: Wholesale 9-inch fillet knife
Stanley Larsen is what you’d call a seasoned filleter, boasting a respectable three-minute average for slicing through a bluefish. He’s owned the fish market since 2004, and he comfortably glides between the display case and filleting station, his oversized white fishermen’s boots squeaking quietly on the floor. For first-time fishmongers, he espouses the merits of taking it slow. “On the first few fish, take the time and practice,” he said. For Stanley, it all comes down to the feel of the fish. “Once you get the first fillet off, keep running the fillet over the bone so you get a feel of how the bone feels on the knife.” His 9-inch fillet knife, with a white plastic handle and a slim blade—is his favorite. The blade gets touched up either on a steel or whetstone before every cut, so it’s now about half of it’s original size. “You can do a lot with it and it stays sharp for a long time,” he said. Just keep your fingers out of the way.
SAUTÉ COOK AT MARTHA’S VINEYARD CHOWDER COMPANY / Favorite knife: Family carbon-steel chef knife
In Jean-Marc Dupon’s family, a long cut of chefs, heirlooms come in the form of carbon-steel knives. Jean-Marc’s blade was a gift from his father, Jean Dupon, who has owned Le Grenier, a Vineyard Haven institution, for over 30 years. The knife has been passed down three generations, from his grandmother to his father to Jean-Marc, and will be passed next to his daughter, Jess Dupon; the initials “JD” run up the side of the handle. The knife is dark now, with shades of grey and black, worn from almost 90 years of use, but for Jean-Marc, it’s really all he needs. “I like the old classic style,” he said. “You don’t need much more than that. If you’re good with the knife, you can do just about everything.”
FORMER SOUS-CHEF AT BEACH PLUM INN / First knife: Togiharu 10-inch
Nothing cuts like a first knife, as Lee Desrosiers learned while working the line at Marlow and Sons in New York City. “I was grilling steaks, doing this and that, and started chopping vegetables quickly—and, took the tip of my finger off,” Lee said. “I immediately wrapped it in tape, put a glove on it and kept going.” He almost fainted when he got his first look at the damage after service had ended. The perpetrator was a well-sharpened 10-inch Togiharu—a Japanese blade—which Lee had purchased before he’d even gotten serious about cooking. Despite the ‘incident,’ Lee still prefers Japanese-made blades; he admires the quality—and, yes, how well they cut. Plus, Lee said, making an investment in one quality knife is the best way to make your mistakes early, and build up your confidence in the kitchen. “Once you master one knife really well, you can appreciate how other knives are built.”
CHEF/OWNER OF 7A FOODS / Favorite knife: J.A. Henkel 10-inch chef’s knife
Dan Sauer was 17 years old when he told his parents he wasn’t going away to college—he was going to become a chef. To celebrate, his older brother bought him a 10-inch Henkel knife. “Brothers of that age don’t buy each other expensive presents, so it was a really nice gesture. He was supporting me,” said Dan, taking a break on the front porch of 7a, his short-sleeved chef’s coat tucked under a white apron. Way before the knife made it to West Tisbury, Dan was working at Walkers Grill, in Billings, Montana the summer of 1996, when the state was plagued by the crimes of the unabomber Ted Kaczynski and the vigilante justice group the Montana Freeman. Dan came into work early one morning to prep, and he parked his car at the county courthouse across the street. “I had my knife, [but] I didn’t have my knife guard that day, and I was just holding it down.” Heading across the street, he found his way blocked by two FBI agents who had just a few questions about what he was doing wielding a knife on the streets of Billings in broad daylight. Escaping without charges, the knife is still a key tool in the 7a kitchen, used for everything from breaking bones to portioning baked goods.
CHEF/OWNER OF LITTLE HOUSE CAFÉ / Favorite knife: Wholesale paring knife
“A good sharp paring knife is key to starting a successful day,” said Merrick Carreiro, of cooking in her kitchen at Little House Café. Merrick discovered “the joy of paring knives” in a collection of a German variety at a “beautiful little jam shop” on Lake Ontario in Canada. And now? “I can’t have enough of them in the kitchen,” she said. “I use them for everything.” She likes them so much, in fact—for slicing avocados to strawberries to tomatoes—that she enlists members of her staff to hide her stash from her. “If you give me all six, I will use all six,” Merrick said. “We only go into a new one when we’re ready for it.” Six knives are always kept in the Little House kitchen: one at the fruit station, one on the line, one always in her hand, and the other three hidden from sight.
CHEF AT BLACK SHEEP / Favorite knife: J.A. Henkel santoku
Judy Klumick takes pride in her immaculate home kitchen in Edgartown. Every drawer is well stocked, every tool placed just so, and her knife drawer is no exception. Her wood-handled J.A. Henkel knife set originally came in a two-level leather briefcase, gifted to her over 20 years ago. She was cooking at the Park Bench Café in Vermont when the rest of the staff gave her the set for her birthday. But first, they decided to have a little fun with her: “They made a cake for me ... out of foam, and they insisted on me trying out my new knives,” she said. “They frosted this foam cake and I was trying to cut [it] and I got so mad I was crying.” The briefcase is long gone, but now Judy has each of her blades neatly lined up, blade-to-blade, in her drawer: There are carving knives, oyster and clam shucking knives, a boning knife, plus shears, a steel, skewers—the list is endless. “They’re not fancy,” she said. “They’re sentimental more than anything.” Her favorite of the set? The santoku, with its nice sharp, curved nose. “It’s lived with me at every job I’ve ever had.”