In Praise of No-Name Knives

You don’t have to spend a long time around people who cook to realize they can be obsessional about the knives they use.

For some, it’s high-end only: I was in a restaurant kitchen recently and heard one chef rave for minutes about a knife tailored to his hand’s dimensions by a bladesmith he knew. For others, it’s restaurant supply all the way: You might attempt to borrow a line cook’s Dexter-Russell Sani-Safe, but be prepared for a struggle. People are passionate about Zwilling, Shun, Global, Kramer, Misono, Mac, Miyabi—or, on the less-expensive side, Chicago Cutlery, Cutco, and l’Econome. Knives and knife brands are a shorthand for self-identification, code for an expert, an epicure or someone who values efficiency over expense.

All of which makes me a little embarrassed to admit that I don’t know who made my favorite knife, or where it came from, or even how old it is. I only know that, of all the knives in my kitchen (Henckel, Wusthof, Sabatier, Pallares Solsona, Kaplan Aronson and Opinel) it fits my hands, and my sense of my self as a cook, the best.

“My knife” is a small chef’s knife, 10 inches from end to end. The handle is dark wood, probably walnut, riveted with brass. The metal is carbon steel, full tang and fully forged; the blade is lightly pitted and has been sharpened so often that the bolster almost hits the cutting board before the edge does. It is beautifully balanced and will hover on my fingertip if I suspend it carefully; it sharpens up like a razor but does not hold an edge for long. When I grip it, it feels like a part of me.

I have no idea of the knife’s origins, and there are no obvious maker’s marks to help me. (When I squint, a pattern emerges on the reverse of the blade. It might be a cross or a dragonfly, or a random cluster of chips and dings.) It was my favorite tool in my parents’ kitchen and I retrieved it after they died, reasoning that the loss of one no-name knife would make little difference to the coming estate sale.

Photograph by Maryn McKenna

Photograph by Maryn McKenna

When I look back, I cannot remember a time when the knife was not in their house, which means it must be at least 30 years old. I puzzle over its provenance: Did they buy it in some village shop in England, or carry it home from holidays in France? I know I adopted it as mine around the time we all began to cook together, when they were bored by the excesses of oil-boom Houston and I was desperate to escape the rigidity of high school. It helped me learn to sliver an onion, chiffonade basil, find the cleavage planes in chocolate, test the temperature of a steak—which is a way of saying it taught me trust in my senses, and alertness to tradition, and, and the value of practicing a skill.

Journalists often are diligent cooks, and not just became our jobs keep us at work beyond the hours when most restaurants close. When your daily life encompasses natural disasters and dying children, knowing you can feed yourself well becomes a thing you can lean on in tragedy and chaos. There were nights I came home after 14 hours of working a beat, trusting to my knife to help me dice tomatoes, chop peppers, slice garlic thin enough to read through, and produce a bowl of warmth and comfort in the half-hour I could stay awake between the door and bed.

If my knife could talk, it would probably say those late-night dinners were boring. In compensation, I try to give it more interesting tasks: trimming the stems on jalapenos before I pickle them, pricking the skin of a duck before I roast it, shaving the pith from orange peel for a cocktail. And no matter what I’ve used it for, I take care of it: I wash it immediately, dry it thoroughly, and hang it on a magnetized strip that is embedded in wood to protect against nicking the blade. I sharpen it on a water stone, true it on a steel, and strop it on a yard-long contraption of leather and wood that a friend made.

Photo of a knife.

Photograph by Maryn McKenna

Because of this care, it has lasted a long time — but to be honest, none of that care could make my knife pretty. The wood is aged; the metal is patinated. It isn’t formidable like a cleaver, or precise like an usuba, or beautiful like a damascened carving knife meant for display. The kindest adjective you could apply to my knife is “vintage.”

I fretted over this for a while, thinking that a serious cook ought to have more serious knives—the kind that demand hundreds of dollars, or months on a waiting list, or a quiet conversation in E. Dehillerin. It took me some time to understand that, desirable though those knives might be, they felt wrong for my cooking: too valuable, too performative, too ambitious. Too showy, perhaps.

I realized: maybe the knife is the cook. My knife is unremarkable, but it is trustworthy and authentic. It is suited to its tasks, sharper than it looks, capable of more than appears at first. It is the right knife for me.