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Why Chefs Are Obsessed with Old Knives

Rachel Tepper Paley
April 8, 2014

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

Brian Robinson, a sous chef at DGS Delicatessen in Washington, D.C., agrees. His main tool is his father’s old military knife. The elder Robinson, a retired Green Beret, received the U.S. Army–grade steel knife with a heavy wooden handle while completing special forces training in Panama in 1959.

"I like the idea of using something that he used 40 years ago," Robinson said. It’s still in near mint condition, despite the fact that Robinson uses it to break down up to 300 pounds of brisket daily. "[DGS] has been open a year, and I’ve gone through 4 [new] knives. This is the knife I always come back to. It just feels really, really good in my hand."

Both Balika and Robinson urged resisting the lure of shiny, new designer knives, which can sometimes cost as much as thousands of dollars. Old knives rarely get the same attention as newer models, they said, but when sharp, they can perform just as well (or better).

Vintage knives tend to be made with carbon steel, Balika went on, whereas newer ones are often forged with hybrid metals of stainless steel, nickel, titanium, and other metals. Carbon steel may be more susceptible to rust, tarnish, and wear, he admitted, but older knives are playing the long game. “They’re easier to sharpen, so you can have them for a lifetime, or multiple lifetimes in the case of some cleavers,” he said.

It’s good incentive to hold onto your grandfather’s old knives, worn and tarnished though they may be. A quick sharpening and shine will do them well, and for a fraction of the price of a new knife.

There’s also something romantic about using a tool that an ancestor once gripped. Perhaps they too once stood, as you might now, at a table slicing apples with the same knife—an intangible connection made tangible through the blade in your hand.