The Story of Zhenya’s Knives

By Adina Steiman, Epicurious

Photo: Chelsea Kyle

I’d already graduated from cooking school, but my great-uncle Zhenya still wouldn’t let me anywhere near his knives. He’d shake his head “no” when I asked to see one. “They’re very sharp,” he’d caution.

They didn’t seem all that intimidating. Especially compared to the oversize chef’s knives I’d wielded in class. In fact, they didn’t look much different than table knives. But Zhenya knew exactly how sharp those knives were—he was the one who put the edge on them. In his hands, harmless table knives were transformed into what can only be described as a creative assortment of shivs. And when he finally let me hold one and I ran my finger lightly along the blade’s edge, I realized he wasn’t just being a fond, overprotective great-uncle. The thing felt sharp as a shaving blade. Sharp enough that my heart beat a little faster as I touched it. So sharp, in fact, I handed it back to him without daring to try it out in his presence.

When we would visit Zhenya in Toronto, I’d usually find him in the basement holding one of those knives. He had a second, subterranean kitchen set up down there, and you’d enter to find a well-muscled senior citizen in a white ribbed tank top and brown work pants, with weathered hands and war tattoos, seated at a table with a knife in his hand. He’d greet you with a deep ex-smoker’s voice, a warm smile and a hug that was both shaky and strong. Almost always, he’d be working his way through dozens of grapefruit halves, carving them up into segments. He’d always make more than one for each of us, to protect us from that feeling of wanting more and not being able to have it.

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Breakfast at Zhenya’s always started with that grapefruit. Sure, there was yayishnitzeh, the kielbasa-filled Jewish frittata, resting in a skillet and exuding oniony aromas like a Yankee Candle. And there were Montreal-style bagels, already cut in half and piled on a platter. But those grapefruit halves would always kick off the meal. They’d be cut into segments with a tapered, almost scythe-like knife he’d made, with the central core cut out by a flat-tipped knife he’d shaped precisely for that purpose. No serrated grapefruit spoons necessary. All you needed to do was lift your spoon and enjoy.

Zhenya’s grapefruit knives | Photo: Chelsea Kyle

But most of the knives Zhenya made were never used for cooking. Those grapefruit knives were the happy peacetime descendants of the razor-sharp leather-cutting tools he made in Turkmenistan during World War II. There, when he wasn’t forced to work coal mines, conscripted into a Soviet soccer team, or running for his life, he learned his trade as a shoemaker from his brother, my grandfather. But since the tools he needed to cut leather weren’t available, my grandfather taught him how to make them himself, sharpening ordinary knives to a fine edge by running them along a sharpening stone. When he and his family emigrated to Canada after the war, he made his own knife sharpening machine, building a little table, attaching a wheel with a sharpening stone, and hooking it up to a small motor. He used his machine to sharpen table knives from restaurants (including at least one from Horn & Hardarts, the legendary chain of Automats), explaining that they were made from high-quality steel that could hold an edge for a long time.

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The last time I saw Zhenya before he passed away, he made us breakfast as usual. But then, when we were saying goodbye, he did something different. He took the grapefruit knives I’d always admired and said, very casually, that they were mine now. As I stood in surprise, he grabbed two scraps of leather, folded them, cut them without measuring, and ran them through his sewing machine. I blinked, and he had made perfectly sized sleeves for those knives. He put the knives in their sleeves, and gave them to me. I held them in my hands. This time, I felt perfectly safe.

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