Behind the Blade

The story of a chef’s knife

The perfect knife differs by chef, by task. Though none can quite articulate the connection, all admit it exists. “You just know,” they each said. Favorites come in all lengths and styles from various parts of the world, each carrying a story as unique as the hand that wields it.

Nick Vergos, Co-Owner, Charlie Vergos Rendezvous

12 inch Forschner Victorinox Serrated Slicer

His father started not with ribs, but with a spinning rack of bone-in hams sliced by long, straight French knives. The world-famous ribs came 15 years later, and they were cut with Forschner boning knives, blades from the same maker as Swiss Army. After 10 racks, they can still shave arm hair. Nick Vergos has used them his whole career, beginning in 1970 on cheese plates when everything was cut by hand. “You can’t build a house without good tools. You can’t fix a car without good tools. And you can’t work in a restaurant without good knives,” he said. “It’s your life blood.”

While most basic serrated knives make for an easier cut, their sawing teeth, so tight and pointed, leave a jagged edge. Vergos says the Forschner is different: “There used to be a place called Smith’s Restaurant Supply on Main Street years ago. A guy found this slicer for me, and it changed my life. I’ve sliced 10,000 hams with my father’s knives, but this cut was almost effortless, and no jags on the ham.”

Ysaac Ramirez, Chef de Cuisine, Gray Canary

7 inch Custom Japanese Damascus Gyuto

He had one custom-made from a metalworker in North Carolina. “It’s nice, really nice,” he said. “But I got it, held it, and it just wasn’t the knife. The handle, the fit. Just the way it feels in your hand. One chef knows when this knife is going to be it.”

It was a gift last Christmas from his girlfriend who visited her family in Japan and bought one of the last knives in a closing blacksmith’s stall of the Tsukiji fish market, now gone forever. It has a hexagon handle, and the blade shows layers of steel in waves like a woodgrain hologram. Ramirez recently returned to Memphis from New Orleans’s Josephine Estelle, part of Enjoy A | M Restaurant Group. “In New Orleans, we worked with a local cobia purveyor,” he said. “He would spear fishes in the morning. Showed up one night with a 60-pound cobia. With a knife like this, it’s a pretty strenuous job, but this little knife did it.”

Tamra Eddy, Chef/Owner, Chef Tam’s Underground Café

7 inch Gotham Santoku

She admits to sometimes having knife envy. Hers came from the “As Seen on TV” display at a forgettable box chain eight years ago when she started cooking. Twenty dollars for a two-piece set claiming to cut through anything. Her young son liked Batman. “I was hoping to connect with him, like on a superhero level,” she said. But he was not impressed. All these years later, after only one sharpening, it really does cut through anything, she says.

Chef Tam’s most memorable dish was the Collard Green Pizza with Prosciutto she made to win Guy’s Grocery Games on Food Network a few months back. She won $16,000 with her Gotham. “People put a lot of emphasis on tools, not to say they’re not important, but where’s the love, the passion?” she said. “I’ll keep my cheap knife. It works. When you come from meager beginnings, you can take the least and make the most.”

Dave Krog, Chef/Co-Owner, Gallery 901

6 inch Homemade Honesuki (Japanese poultry knife)

The former chef at Interim currently runs a series of pop-up art show/wine dinners. He also forges knives in his backyard and gives them away. A self-taught hobbyist, Krog learned from books and YouTube videos, then got started with straight razors.

“I made this knife a few years ago as a birthday present for Zack Thomason, the chef at the Kitchen Next Door,” he said. “I converted a mini Weber grill into a forge, got some lump charcoal and a hairdryer. You can get up to 1,800 degrees with that little set up.”

He hand-honed the single bevel, choosing not to grind out all the black hammer strikes, and crafted the handle from a piece of driftwood found on the bank of the Mississippi River. Now Krog has a workshop with a gas forge and all the tools, but less time for hobbies, with plans for a restaurant. The 1095 steel and oak for his own knife will have to keep.

Erling Jensen, Chef/Owner, Erling Jensen: The Restaurant

10 inch F. Dick Chef’s Knife

Jensen bought his favorite knife 40 years ago in Denmark and brought it with him to this country. It was stolen in the early 2000s, and he has an idea, but won’t say by whom. Since then, he has chopped with a standard Wusthof like thousands of others. But he claims he would know his own by touch, the way a handle molds to the hand. “It’s like a nice pair of shoes,” he said. “You get them new, they feel good. Wear them awhile, they still feel good. Better.”

For seafood, Jensen prefers a random Russell International he picked up at a private catering gig in Eads four years ago. He saw the foot-long blade, the light magnolia D-shaped handle sitting on the counter. “I picked it up. The guy who lived there, he said, ‘You like it? Take it.’ So I did. And I use it all the time,” he said. Win some. Lose some.

Camron Razavi, Executive Chef, Restaurant Iris

5 ½ inch Kasumi Honesuki

A shorter blade means more control than the standard eight inches or more. The VG-10 steel is thin, light and scary sharp. “I use it for filleting fish and meats,” he said. “It’s brittle and hard to sharpen but good for compact situations on the line.” Razavi bought it as a treat for himself when Chef Kelly English asked him to lead the relaunch of Restaurant Iris.

His first Kasumi knife was a Santoku from a visit with his father in Seattle 10 years ago. Razavi keeps the heavy, substantial knife around but does not use it as often. His father has since passed away, so when time came to look for a newer knife, he chose the same brand. “I got it to kind of usher in a new era, and still, there’s a memory there,” he said.

Candice Baxter writes on homegrown food, kids and other topics out there shimmering. Born in Paris—not the French one, but Tennessee—she tells the truth like it is. With a BS in business and MFA in creative nonfiction, Baxter has published local cover features in the Memphis Flyer, Memphis Parent, and The Collierville Herald. For six years, she taught English composition at L’Ecole Culinaire.

Justin Fox Burks has been a professional photographer for 20 years, but that’s not all. He photographed and co-authored four vegetarian cookbooks with his wife, Amy Lawrence: Vegetarian Cooking for Two, Low-Carb Vegetarian Cookbook, The Southern Vegetarian, and The Chubby Vegetarian. He feels fortunate to be able to make interesting images for a living. @justinfoxburks