For years, a few privileged cooks have joined a waiting list to spend thousands of dollars for the carbon steel knives Bob Kramer makes by hand at his forge in Olympia, Washington. Two weeks ago the cookware chain Sur la Table began selling a signature line made to his specifications by Zwilling J.A. Henckels. Though the knives are priced as high as $349.95 for a 25-centimetre chef’s knife, cooks quickly bought hundreds of them, with the chain selling about 20 percent of its inventory in 10 days, said Jacob Maurer, the vice president for merchandising for Sur la Table.
The demand for high-end kitchen cutlery keeps growing.
“There’s more sophisticated cooking going on, so people are willing to spend more,” said Michelle Foss, the director of merchandising for Williams-Sonoma stores, where high-level knives, like an 20-centimeter Henckels Cronidur chef’s knife for $299, are selling well.
Norman Kornbleuth, an owner of Broadway Panhandler in Manhattan, said his customers are no longer reluctant to spend $200 for something like a classic chef’s knife by Wusthof from Germany or Shun from Japan.
And like Sur la Table, other retailers are finding a surprising interest in carbon steel.
“People are buying Japanese knives and more esoteric cutlery,” said Taylor Erkkinen, an owner of Brooklyn Kitchen in Williamsburg, “but the interest in carbon steel is what struck me the most.”
Carbon steel blades take and hold an edge better than stainless steel. But home cooks have long favoured stainless steel knives because unlike carbon steel, they do not stain or rust or react to acidic ingredients. Over time, even well-maintained carbon steel knives acquire a gray finish known as a patina.
Lee Richmond, the owner of the Best Things, a web-site that sells carbon steel Sabatier knives made in France, said that “in the last year sales have been going crazy.”
“They want carbon steel,” he said of his customers, “because the knives they own don’t hold an edge as well and are not as easy to sharpen.”
Manufacturers like Sabatier and R. Murphy Knives, the 150-year-old company from Ayer, Massachusetts, whose knives are sold at Brooklyn Kitchen, are old hands at carbon steel.
But there are a growing number of new artisans in the field, like Joel Bukiewicz, who opened his workshop and store, Cut Brooklyn, last year. (In the fall, Bukiewicz will start making a stainless steel chef’s knife for Williams-Sonoma, which will sell for $599.95.)
Kramer opened his first shop in Seattle in 1992 after sharpening knives for chefs door-to-door. He learned how to hand-forge blades from artisans in Arkansas and Florida who made only pocketknives and hunting knives. His knives are very well balanced with wider blades, and robust but elegant rounded handles finished with brass details.
“I had been working with chefs,” Kramer said, “and producing high-performance knives that were easy to sharpen and held an edge was what interested me.”
“We’ve now come full circle,” he added. “People want heirloom tomatoes, they like slow cooking and they treasure good, old knives. Carbon steel is sharp. And they are not afraid of the patina.”
Maurer of Sur la Table said the decision to have Kramer create the line of carbon steel knives was a bit of a risk, even though the chain has been carrying a pricey line of stainless steel knives designed by Kramer and made by Shun in Japan. But the company thought it recognized a trend.
“It’s a return to a heritage of cooking, like copper pots and cast iron, something that’s pure and organic,” he said. Erkkinen said that her customers see carbon steel “as natural, healthy and artisanal.”
Still, more-mainstream stainless steel knives, and Japanese-style knives, are driving the stronger demand for high-end knives.
Erkkinen said that after customers try an entry-level 20-centimetre stainless steel chef’s knife by Messermeister, the knife she recommends for cooks starting out, they often move on to a Japanese knife, because of its thinner blade and great balance.
The office of the consul general of Japan in New York said that the U.S. was now the biggest importer of Japanese knives, outpacing South Korea in volume and sales for the first time in 2010.
European companies, notably Wusthof, Sabatier and Zwilling J.A. Henckels, have for years been making Japanese-style santoku knives, which do not taper to a point like a traditional chef’s knife, but are wider for their entire length and rounded at the end.
Now for the export market, Japanese knife-makers are incorporating Western styles, like chef’s knives. They are using somewhat thicker blades sharpened on both sides, and flattened handles that have a visible tang, the part of the blade that goes into the handle, secured by rivets. Traditional Japanese knives have rounded or octagonal wooden handles with no visible tang or rivets and are often sharpened, or beveled, on only one side. This makes for a thinner blade, but the knives are designed for right-handed use only and take particular skill to sharpen.
For stainless steel and carbon steel blades, new materials are being introduced, notably a sandwiched construction similar to what is typically used in good pots and pans. Molybdenum and vanadium add strength and hardness. Some knives have textured, hammered blades. Others are Damascus-style, a centuries-old technique of folding the steel as it is forged, to make the blade stronger and give it a rippled design. (Knives stamped out of a piece of metal, not finished on a forge, like the popular Global brand from Japan, are cheaper and less durable. The less expensive lines from most manufacturers, including Wusthof’s Gourmet line, tend to be stamped.)
Another indication that cutlery connoisseurship is growing is that in good kitchenware stores, fewer people are buying knife sets, preferring more custom selections. Despite the almost bewildering choices of 200 or more knives in a store, a basic knife set is really simple: a paring knife, a serrated bread knife and an all-purpose 20- or 25-centimetre Western chef’s knife or a Japanese santoku.
But the next “must-have” knife may be the nakiri. It’s what the Japanese call a vegetable knife, like a lightweight cleaver, with a rectangular blade, and it is extremely versatile.
“I’ve used one as long as I can remember,” said Saori Kawano, the president and founder of Korin. “We’re starting to see an interest in them.”