I have a friend that received a full scholarship to Oxford for correctly crediting as at that time, yet-to-be-authenticated Carvaggio. How did she do it when even all her professors were wrong?
‘It was simpler than his earlier works. Maturity seeks simplicity’, she said.
That’s exactly my stance on kitchen knives. For me, the more I cook, the less the knives I use seem to matter.
But this wasn’t always the case.
The very first knife I ever feel in love with was this Henkel, or one just like it. I had saved up and bought it as a student when money was so tight that I actually remember staying home an entire winter in order to be able to afford it (and this in Italy, when wine out is always inexpensive). Like a lot of early love stories, it was doomed relationship, as it was also the knife with which I learned to sharpen knives (the equivalent of learning to drive a manual transmission… on a Formula One). And then a few years later when it was but a wisp of metal, a house guest decided to force open a wooden wine case with it and we all know what happened next. In half. I felt it in my shoulders and spine even before I heard the snap.
Money earned from tutoring was slightly easier to come by and I bought a second one that is still pristine 20 years later. For me, it is the perfect French knife, even though I find myself reaching for it less and less.
I was actually born in the States but it wasn’t until a visit there in my late 20’s that it occurred to me that I didn’t really have anything to show for it: over the years I had worn out all my clothing, updated all my books and molted and shed all my electronics, 11o for 22o. I asked everyone for suggestions of products that America did particularly well. With all the shifts in global manufacturing there was little still made there so it came down to either a motorcycle (no thanks) or Lamson knives, which I bought and still love. With each visit I bought more and more until I had the complete set, or at least the knives that I’ll likely use in my lifetime.
These here are three of the nine French knives I bought for our Cooking School in Puglia, two weeks before we first opened back in 2003. They are Italian, heavy and although we regularly receive lots of compliments on them, the only sense of ownership I have for them is that I bought them, and I have used them for 15 years when I’ve been tired to reach for the knives I really love. All knives are tools but these to me feel like look anonymous, long-term leases. They work. They cut. They don’t fill my heart with joy though.
What does fill my heart are these Berti knives. Hideously, almost comically expensive, the famous family called me to announce my new knives arrival, the adult daughter’s voice so heavy with the hissy ‘h’ of a northern Tuscan accent as to seem affected and cartoonish.
‘Hotelli’, she called my ‘coltelli’ [knives]’, her ‘c’s coming out as ‘h’s. Their boxwood handles are satisfying in the hand, their blades cut beautifully, but only if you keep them loved.
Yesterday I had espresso with our cooking school’s knife sharpener, Gigi. I had asked him about the patron saint of knife sharpeners so that I could search out an icon for our new wall of knives at our cooking school in Puglia. It turns out that patron saint selection is very open to interpretation and the art comes from the selection of which characteristics you hope to protect. Is the patron saint of knives the same as butchers? Or metalsmiths? Or should we choose someone that was flayed alive (the church had a knack for it). Gigi just looked at me over his coffee. ‘Cambia’, he asked, (‘does it change anything’?), this from a man with 4 shrines in a space barely large enough to pivot it.
Most of the time lately though I reach for one of these. Small, simple, far from impressive, I’ve nearly abandoned cutting boards and French knives in exchange for cutting against my thumb, over a bowl, just like about everyone else does here in Southern Italy. We cut, we make food.
Food preparation is always aspirational. Do you need surgical steel to make your feel that your time in the kitchen is well-spent? Is that your goal? Or is it to cook for those you love? To care for them?
Take a moment and think about the food that has meant the most to you over the years. Food that has fed more than your body.
Now, do you see what I mean?
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