Dinner at Aulis is as theatrical as it is exclusive and delicious. It is a private room with just six seats in a room off the kitchen at Simon Rogan’s celebrated restaurant Fera, in London’s Claridge’s. A chef works in front of you, preparing meticulous dishes of modern British food for three-and-a-half hours. Tonight, executive chef Dan Cox holds court, wielding knives as beautiful as the plates he’s putting together. “I had these made for me in Japan,” he says. “They are balanced perfectly for my grip. These others are from Blenheim Forge – they’re also Damascus steel, all hand-forged. And I like them because, you know… they’re from Peckham.”
If food now competes with fashion in terms of our style preoccupations, then the global fascination with all things culinary is being well served by product design. Currently, what clings to the magnetic strip on an enthusiastic cook’s kitchen wall is just as much art as it is a set of finely engineered knives to cut ingredients with, and alongside pans, they are arguably the most important tools in the kitchen. “We made our first knife around three years ago,” says James Ross-Harris, who runs Blenheim Forge alongside Jon Warshawsky and Richard Warner. “I was working on bespoke furniture at the time. We started by creating Damascus steel for our blades, where you combine and fold different layers of steel. It’s a near mythical process, incredibly difficult to do.”
As well as the varied layers of steel, with differing carbon contents to create unique durability and sharpening ability, legend has it that the finest examples of Damascus steel from history were solidified by rapidly cooling hot metal in dragon’s blood. There’s some of that romance on display at Blenheim Forge – the knives, with walnut handles fashioned from offcuts, take days to make. From Petty, the smallest paring knife (£100), to the Gyuto slicing knife (£450), these are beautiful objects with up to 300 layers of metal in each blade and a waiting time of over two months for delivery.
Few people know more about knife-making than Jay Patel who owns the Japanese Knife Company, with stores in London and Paris. Fera’s Cox has been a visitor here, and it is where Prince Charles’s head gardener came recently when he wanted a machete made as a gift for his boss. “I’m just working on the handle at the moment,” says Patel, showing me the hand-forged blade that is heading to the palace. “It will take me a month to finish. It has to fit his hand perfectly for when he is cutting his way through woodland.”
The Japanese Knife Company’s Baker Street store is the Hermès of Damascus steel. It’s impossible to visit and not fall in love with something hand-forged by artisans 6,000 miles away, with that distinct patina that Damascus produces – akin to the ornate ripples of mountain ranges on Ordnance Survey maps. Right now, Patel is excited by his latest discovery, knives from the town of Hirosaki on Japan’s Tsugaru peninsula, which has eight centuries of heritage in swordcraft. “I have been looking for someone as good as blacksmith Azai-san, who died a year ago,” says Patel, unfurling a roll of his favourite Azai knives. “These are over 20 years old and still sharpen to perfection.” To demonstrate, he takes a blade and shaves an inch of arm hair off, as if by laser. “I discovered a blacksmith called Yoshizawa who is doing amazing work. But he had never made a western-style knife before. Now he is working for me maybe three days a month, when he isn’t creating swords. We don’t put the knives [£1,349] on display because we can’t supply demand.”
While many of the brand names at the Japanese Knife Company are esoteric, there are others from east Asia generating more commercial lines. Kai is one of the biggest. Alongside its own premier Shun line, it has produced a 10-piece set ($3,376) with a black finish on the blades, with French chef Michel Bras. “We created what he expects for his kitchen, developing the knives through hundreds of samples,” says Koji Endo, CEO of the Kai Group. “For me, the result expresses the spirit of the nokaji, the blacksmith, passed from generation to generation in my hometown of Seki.”
The latest additions to the Shun range include the Dual Core series ($375), which layers differing stainless steels in innovative fashion (the high-carbon steel in many Damascus knives isn’t always stainless and will visually weather). “It incorporates 71 alternating microlayers of high-carbon, high-chromium steels in one blade,” explains Endo. These are state-of-the-art wonders, from the pattern on the razor-sharp blades to the elegant octagonal black pakkawood handles.
A new name, fast becoming a favourite of chefs – Phil Howard and Anthony Demetre at Arbutus are fans – is Tog, whose knives (£100) are also made in Seki. “It’s the Samurai-sword capital of Japan,” says Katie Holloway, the buyer for Divertimenti in London. Tog is, in fact, a British firm. Its knife handles – with a pleasing, laser-etched Japanese pattern – are made from sustainably produced Kebony maple in Sheffield, and everything is designed by RCA graduate Rob Beagley-Brown. “The knives are batch-produced, handmade and numbered,” he says. “Tog is the best of east meets west: swordmaking and cutlery expertise plus British innovation and design.”
One of the most popular brands at Divertimenti is K Sabatier. “Sabatier is a name used by several different manufacturers,” says Holloway. “It’s like saying ‘Sheffield steel’. K Sabatier is one of the oldest of them and manufactures 100 per cent handmade fully forged knives in France.” Established in 1834, the firm remains family run. “Our latest line is called 200-8 Générations, in tribute to 200 years and eight generations of the family,” says head of the business Philippe Bournilhas. “This year we created pieces with a handle made of G10, a high quality material usually used for pocket knives – very difficult to work with.” The epoxy resin-impregnated fibreglass appears on seven new pieces (from £68), from 10cm to 25cm. The rest of the line (from £62) features the classic K Sabatier ebony handle.
As well as being a pursuit passed down the generations, knife-making is piquing the interest of the design community. The boys at Blenheim Forge channel a rough-hewn, handsome aesthetic that could be utilised for all manner of interiors. Award-winning Norwegian product designer Per Finne has been creating work at his studio in the village of Voss since 2002, developing spice grinders, ski accessories and children’s harnesses. When he conceived his Umami Santoku knife (about £167), his intention was to create the only knife you’ll ever need. Unusually for something inherently sharp, it has a soft silhouette. Its handle is small, sculptural and supremely comfortable. “You hold it with your hand closer to the blade, so there’s a flowing transition between it and the handle,” Finne explains. “The shape invites a wide range of ways to grip – and the oak is warm and textural.”
The story behind a kitchen knife can be as compelling as the handcraft on a couture dress, and the finest Japanese pieces can take an age to make and involve considerable investment. The return, however, is a one‑off piece of handmade design. On the wall at the Japanese Knife Company in Baker Street is a cabinet with highly prized pieces starting at £600 from Japanese firm Tojiro. “The company produces over 15,000 blades a month,” says Patel. “It has a factory producing mass-market knives that is incredibly modern and full of robots, but it’s been family run by blacksmiths for generations and if you go through to the back, you’ll find a shed where the masters sit making the more expensive pieces with hammers; it’s the same company, but these are entirely handmade.” They are also, with their ravishing patterns and finish, just as beautiful as they are satisfying to use.