Why Chefs Are Obsessed with Old Knives
Photo credit: StockFood/Pepe Nilsson
A person might be legitimately concerned about the alarming number of antique butcher’s cleavers in Brent Balika’s possession were he not a Culinary Institute of America–educated chef with a killer resumé.
Fortunately, he is, which makes his obsession a touch less worrisome. These days, Balika has a gig cooking private meals for the spirits wholesaler Tenzing, for which he sometimes plates dishes on the flat edge of a sharp, menacing cleaver.
"I’ve got 40 cleavers," Balika recently told us. The first he acquired was a knife that originally belonged to a family friend. "It was his father’s cleaver from his butcher shop, and it started a passion, really.”
Balika’s knife collection. Photo credit: Brent Balika
Balika continued to tick off a wild selection of knives he’d unearthed in antique shops and from the depths of eBay: a nine-pound, three-foot-long 1800s-era Amish cattle splitter (exactly what it sounds like); a handmade carbon steel cleaver made from bomb shells discarded during the Chinese Civil War, which started in 1927; and a rusty handmade blacksmith’s cleaver dating back to the 1600s.
Seventeenth-century cleavers aside, most of these knives, even those dating back nearly a century, are sharp and in working order. Old knives have proven their durability by sheer virtue of still being in one piece, Balika explained. And to him, old knives are “indispensable, because they go through everything.”
"A new cleaver, they’re smaller and maybe they’re more refined," Balika continued. "These I have, they’re rustic. There’s a romance to them. They feel better in the hand. They have better weight distribution."
Photo credit: Brent Balika