If you're looking for an incredibly special holiday gift this year for the cook in your life, look no further than Brooklyn. Joel Bukiewicz of Cut Brooklyn crafts his premium knives by hand and they are built to last a lifetime, or even longer. Joel talked to us about how he fell into his craft and the importance of a good knife.
How did you get into the cutlery business? I was living in Georgia when I learned to make a knife; I had moved down there after graduate school to finish a manuscript, but I just lost steam. I decided to take a 3-month hiatus, and discovered pretty quickly that I'd developed a strong creative need to craft things on a daily basis. I started making furniture, a couple pairs of canoe paddles, pieces of jewelry—and somewhere in there I came up with the idea that I should try making a knife. So I gave it a shot, and the process and result resonated deeply with me. Making something tangible and so very basic and useful hit me just right. So I went at it, spending every night until 3 or 4 am in a decrepit garden shed learning to make these things. And pretty soon I was selling them to friends and friends of friends, and that was it, I was off.
What makes your knives unique? I use American-made materials exclusively in my pieces—steel, handles, pins, epoxy. I also use the best stuff I can get my hands on, regardless of expense, and I'm constantly testing new materials. Over the 10-12 hours it takes to make one of my larger knives I'm continually checking the feel and balance of the piece, eyeing down the lines to be sure it's what I want it to be, correcting along the way. It's difficult to quantify, but I've found that pieces made by the hands of one or two craftsmen, rather than a factory of them or of robots doing the same physical tasks, have a feeling of wholeness and integrity that mass produced knives lack. I think it's got a lot to do with balance, and there's some sort of trust that's transferred from the craftsman to user.
Guide us through the process of how you make a knife. We get the steel from a mill called Carpenter, in Reading, Pennsylvania, and they send it to us in sheets; I cut out the very rough shape, then take that chunk and shape it on various grinders before I send it off for heat treating. We use a place in Pittsburgh, a military grade facility that can handle the high-tech steel. They're heated up almost to 2000 degrees and they have to be quenched cryogenically. They test each blade and then send them back to me.
I finish by grinding down to between seven and eight thousandths of an inch, so it's super thin—a little thicker than a piece of paper, allowing it to cut really nicely. We then do about an hour of hand-sanding to even everything out before sharpening it. The handles: I epoxy them on to the blade and prep the pins—they are mosaic pins made by Sally Martin in Williams, Oregon, the wife of a knifemaker out there. It sits and cures for a day or two; then I sculpt the handle using a grinder followed by hand sanding to even everything out. Once it feels right, I round off the spine just a little bit by the heel, and that's it—a knife is born!
Have you made any changes to the process or design since you've started? Any new models? I have indeed. My Prospect 240, now a 9.3" chef's knife, began as an 8" chef with a good bit more belly. I've chosen not to use templates for my pieces, in order to leave the possibility of change open, so when prepping a new blank I'll use a knife from the last batch to draw the shape on the steel, but then shape the piece according to the picture in my mind of what it should be. If I'm working well, each knife is the best knife I've ever made—that's my goal. And that's the kind of thing you kill with a CAD file and laser cutters. My Prospect 240 has taken 4 years to evolve to its current state; most knives are drawn in a computer and 1,000 pieces a week are punched out using that shape.
Why is it important to have good kitchen knives? What knives should be in every cook's arsenal? Everyone should have a good large chef's knife, somewhere over 8", that looks and feels good to them, and that they're prepared to maintain. Balance, power, control, accuracy—these things should be present in the knife to the level you require. Everyone should also have a good paring knife with a thin, properly shaped blade that can be resharpened easily. A paring knife needs to feel comfortable, it needs to reach where you need it to reach and it needs to be thin enough not to split what you're paring. You can get a damn adequate paring knife for under $20. The classic French paring knife does the job perfectly.
Any tips for Serious Eaters for choosing a chef's knife and maintaining it? Check out this 5@5 I did with CNN's Eatocracy, it's all there.
Do you think the "Brooklyn Branding" trend (as noted in the New York Times) will have any impact on sales? Brooklyn has been a serendipitously wonderful place to land as a maker of kitchen knives. The level of talent and passion centered around food here at this moment is remarkable—I think that's what folks and the publications they read are responding to, and I feel lucky as hell, every day, that I'm able to do what I do here.
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