A Paean to my Knifemaker

I have a Knifemaker. This does not make me elitist – it makes me happy. It’s surprisingly affordable and it provides me with the best kitchen tools I’ve ever owned. You should have a Knifemaker too, and believe me, you can.

All Element Fe knives, except for M’s stainless Japanese Santoku, and those über cool steak knives…

Prepping for dinner the other night prompted this post. I looked at my knife block, and was about to reach for The Thumbslayer, my pet name for the last knife my guy made for me. It’s my go to blade, and with that and my favorite parer, I can do every job that requires a knife in my kitchen.

Santoku on the left, hybrid cleaver on the right

Anyway, my eye drifted up a slot, and landed on the first knife Andy Gladish of Element Fe Forge made for me, and I grabbed that instead.

As for why it’s called the Thumbslayer? Let’s just say that if you lose focus during prep, shit can happen, and leave it at that. One of my favorite Tony Bourdain quotes is this – ‘when you cut yourself in the kitchen, half the pain you feel is the realization that you’re a dumbass.’

It’s called the Thumbslayer…

That blade I grabbed is the biggest one I own, an 8” Santoku, with a lovely live edge. As I prepped mire poix, I noted how well this one felt in the hand – an extension thereof, really – with perfect balance and power, making the job a joy.

When Andy made this one for me, we had collaborated on what I wanted, but he really didn’t know me at all – and yet the blade ended up perfect for me.

Boner, Carver, Slicer

There were others after that one, of course – in fact, there were eight more, and as you can see, they’re the only knives I own and use every day. There’s the Thumbslayer, which is our riff on a Chinese cleaver, a boner, a carver, a serrated slicer, and four, count ‘em, four parers – a thin, flexible drop point 3”, a stiffer 3.5” spear point, a 3” hawkbill, and a 5.5” serrated – and yes, even Andy once asked, ‘haven’t I made you enough parers?!’

Too many parers? Naaaahhhh!

The truth is that I don’t really need all those others, and you don’t either. One version of a general chef knife that floats your boat and one paring knife will do pretty much all of the work you need done in your kitchen too.

These two can and will get it all done for you

So why do I have so many? Well, ‘cause I can, and because I do stuff you might not where having a job-specific blade is important, and because I love the relationship that sees them made and then housed in my kitchen. And if you want more than two knives, you can have ‘em, too.

The differences between a great, handmade knife and even a good knife are profound – The former does everything a knife needs to do better than the latter – with less effort, greater control, and a much better feel for the work – In other words, it’s well worth it.

Having a knife made for you by Andy won’t cost you any more than a decent name brand production knife. In a world where you can easily spend several hundred bucks on a chef’s knife, (and way more than that if you really wanted to), his will cost well less than that.

If you buy something he makes a bunch of, it’ll be a hand forged knife with great balance and power, just like mine.
If you discuss something specific you want, and partake in the design process, it’ll be even better.

And if he makes more than one for you, the next will be better yet. It’s probably not coincidence that the two blades I use most are the last two he’s made for me – by this point in the relationship, he knows very well what I want.

When you have Andy make your knife, you’re supporting a network of small businesses, (if you include Andy’s suppliers), and you’re getting a very high quality hand made tool in return – I guarantee that you’ll find that process infinitely more satisfying than paying a faceless mass producer.

So what do you want in a chef’s knife? You can go the western route, (think Wusthof or Henckels), or Asian, like my Santoku or Chinese cleaver inspired blades. Size is a matter of what you need versus what you can comfortably wield – my Santoku is an 8”, the thumbslayer is around 7” – I prefer the shorter length for most jobs, and anything between 6” and 9” is reasonable.

A paring knife with a blade in the 3” to 4” is all you need there. Then decide how you like that blade to perform – do you want it flexible or more rigid? Do you like a drop point, or a spear point, or something else? It’s your knife, you get to choose.

As for what to have them made from, that too is your choice. Monica likes stainless steel, while I prefer high carbon. There are pros and cons to both. Generally, stainless is harder and holds an edge longer, while high carbon sharpens easier and, to me at least, gets sharper – but it will stain, and requires a bit more upkeep. Andy can explain the options on steel better than I can, but in a nutshell, that’s it.

I’ve gifted Andy’s knives to others, and recommended them to anyone and everyone. To a person, everyone who now owns one says the same thing – love them, best I’ve ever had.

I think that Christy Hohman sums up what I’m trying to say here better than I can –

‘Since I am the happy owner of two knives made by Andy, I have to add a KnifeTale here. I have always loved to cook, but usually got by with whatever motley assortment of knives happened to be in the drawers of various places where I lived. Then I got a knife block and set of Chicago Cutlery. Wow, I was in heaven…. until Eb and Monica sent me a set of Henckels. Then the Chicago set moved to the cabin and I was in heaven again. But then Eb gave me two knives made by Andy and I’m set for life. They are never put away because I use them multiple times a day. They are always at the ready on the butcher block my bro made me. The Henckels are only used on occasion when I need a larger knife to do something like cut a winter squash. I love my knives and you deserve some too!’

If you’re in the market for a new go-to knife, you now know where to go. I’m sure there are many other reputable makers out there if you prefer to find one near you – This is simply the guy I know and love and recommend without hesitation.

Do you need an Instant Pot? In a word – Yes.

Every year on my birthday, I buy myself a gift, often kitchen-centric. This year, after resisting for quite some time, I bought an Instant Pot Ultra. Monica was a bit dismissive at first, thinking it’s just another toy, and said as much. After we’d used it a few times – enough to experience what it’s really capable of – she said, and I quote, ‘Why did it take you so long to buy one of these?’ 

Instant Pot - Do you need one?
Instant Pot – Do you need one?

Do you need an Instant Pot? In a word – Yes.If you cook and you honestly don’t know what an Instant Pot is, then I’d kinda have to believe that you’re living in a cave and singing your fingers over an open fire. Instant Pot is a brand name for a Canadian designed version of an electric, programmable pressure cooker. That said, comparing this to your gramma’s old 500 pound aluminum behemoth is like equating an AMC Pacer to a BMW. Yes, these things claim to do a bunch of things well, and with most consumer goods of that ilk, it really isn’t the case – But with the IP, I’m here to tell you it’s all true. 

Instant Pot was formed in 2009 by a bunch of Canadian tech nerds who cooked – That synthesis lead them to brainstorm a cooking device that would genuinely do things well, but faster than many common alternative methods. They state their ultimate aim as, ‘to enable busy families and professionals to prepare quality food in less time, promoting better eating and reducing the consumption of fast food.’ I’ll  go so far as to say they’ve achieved that, in spades.

The Instant Pot Ultra - Not the top of the heap, but there isn’t much it can’t do.
The Instant Pot Ultra – Not the top of the heap, but there isn’t much it can’t do.

There are several iterations, of course. The Ultra model we have claims a raft of functions, with settings for Soup/Broth, Meat/Stew, Bean/Chili, Cake, Egg, Slow Cook, Sauté/Searing, Rice, Multigrain, Porridge, Steam, Sterilize, Yogurt, Warm, and Pressure Cooker – It’ll even do a pretty damn good job of sous vide. Then there’s what IP refers to as the ‘Ultra’ program, which in essence just gives you a very wide margin of adjustability for most parameters of the various functions mentioned above. In other words, instead of being stuck with the maker’s idea of perfect for cooking beans, you can go in and tweak the settings to your needs, and for the record, this is, for my mind, actually important. Say you cook a lot of beans – You’ll quickly learn that they do not all do well with one cooking time – so being able to adjust that makes the machine very good instead of just OK at that task. For those that really don’t care for the extra bells and whistles, there are simpler models with less of that kind of thing aboard.

At the heart of these things is, of course, a microprocessor, so yeah – in essence, it’s computer controlled. With multiple sensors monitoring temperature, pressure, cooking time, and food volume, the IP takes a lot of the guesswork out of cooking, and has so far performed flawlessly for us – Take those beans again – From precooking, to sautéing ingredients for the final dish, to cooking all that thereafter, everything can be done seamlessly, in one pot.

Loading up an IP for the final run
Loading up an IP for the final run

And as we’ve known for a long time, pressure cooking – the heart of these things – seriously cuts down on cooking time for dishes that traditionally take quite a while. A primary impetus for my purchase was the fact that almost every posting member of the Vietnamese cooking group I belong to has one, uses it regularly, and swears by it. Even for something as sacred as broth for Pho, these folks go almost universally with an IP, and swear that you can’t tell the difference in the finished dish, vis a vis traditional low and slow methods.

sautéing in an IP
sautéing in an IP

Pressure cooking also does great things for flavor, because all that you add is sealed in, and relatively little escapes. Add the ability to slow cook, or do fairly tightly temperature controlled souls vide, let alone all the specialty settings, and you’ve got a seriously powerful kitchen tool.

These things come in a range of sizes and versions, and the Ultra, as lux as it may sound, isn’t the top of the heap. They range from 3 to 8 quarts, and $45 to $200, as of a quick check today. If you cook a bunch, and you appreciate what these things can do, you really can’t go wrong with picking one up – The scary part is how many people own, and use, more than one IP – I’m not there, and frankly, I’m cool with that.

Now, final caveat – No, I didn’t get an IP for free, or less, or any other version of paid BS endorsement. I bought mine, fair and square, for market price, just as you’ll do. We don’t do the endorsement thing here – Never have, never will, OK? OK.