“Don’t touch anything you don’t recognize in here because it might be hot, electrified, covered in acid, or all three,” Theo Nazz tells me as he welcomes me into his forge and blacksmithing school in Brooklyn’s Industry City.
“The materials we work with are not always going to glow orange when they’re hot, so you lose your ability to assess heat visually. Steel can be a thousand degrees and look room temperature. So if you’re not sure, don’t touch it and try not to lean against things.”
Behind my safety glasses, I’m sure my eyes are bulging. But if I’m trusting my wellbeing to anyone in this industry, Nazz is not a bad bet. The two-time "Forged in Fire" winner is a legend on the History Channel-turned-Netflix show where he rose to fame crafting everything from swords to naginatas (Japanese pole weapons, duh) while keeping injuries to a minimum. OK, so he admits to one little incident involving severed tendons in his hand. Relatable! But I’m here as a layperson — to learn what goes into making a great chef’s knife, the one you reach for for almost every kitchen task.
What makes a knife into a cook’s best friend?
Accompanying us is another Nazz Forge instructor, Tahoma Hauptman, who also works as a private chef. Hauptman tells me he brings his own knives to his gigs to see how well they work in action. Of course, beautiful handmade tools are almost guaranteed to attract attention … and sometimes, extra cash. “If I’ve just made a new knife, I really want to use it. So I take it to the job. And it’s a great talking point. A lot of times a client will notice and end up asking me, 'Hey, how much to leave that behind?'"
The answer, it turns out, is a lot. A handmade chef’s knife can run you hundreds, even thousands, of dollars. But it’s not just a beautiful object — it’s a tool, and as with many things, you get what you pay for. In this case, that’s utility.
“As a traveling chef, I try to carry as little as possible,” Hauptman says. “So I want one knife, that’s the most versatile and can do the most different tasks.” I picture my sad knife block at home, haphazardly outfitted with a mishmash of dull blades of dubious provenance. Hauptman says we should embrace trial and error in the process of finding our perfect fit, Goldilocks-style. Certain techniques, he tells me, might call for a certain tool, one that’s part of a rich history. “These knives have been around for hundreds of thousands of years. They’re very purpose-driven. And you can follow that path and learn how to slice a fish in the Japanese style, and there’s a knife for that. But I want an all-purpose knife.”
How do you find your perfect chef's knife?
For those who aren’t as concerned with paring their collection down to the essentials, Nazz says, the best way to find what’s comfortable is to go to a store with different styles of knives and simply hold them. You’ll know what feels natural when it’s in your hand. “If you’re exploring food and having a great time building your dream home kitchen, and you want to play with all the knives, by all means play with all the knives.”
Hauptman also recommends paying attention to the shape on the edge of the knife and the alignment of the handle. How those two things interact, he says, make all the difference for a cook who will be rocking the blade back and forth. “Sometimes a feature that may be desirable in another style of knife just won’t fly. You can have a fighting knife that looks really cool, but if you use it as a chef’s knife, it would be uncomfortable.”
I ask what brought him, as a chef, to Nazz’s forge. “I came here looking for space to learn and make mistakes,” he says. “That’s how you develop understanding and mastery.” As with cooking, he says, the only way to learn is to practice. “And then if you have a problem, you know how to fix it.”
I think about how much I love to experiment in the kitchen, how my confidence grew when I started understanding the reasons behind why you add ingredients to a dish in a certain order, coax out flavor by toasting nuts and spices, encourage caramelization by resisting the urge to flip your food when it’s on a hot surface. This has led to many burned meals, but it has also led to growth. In both cooking and blacksmithing — any art, really — creativity and practicality can be at odds with one another.
“Efficiency wants to avoid the variation you need to explore. Mistakes help open up the doorway to creativity,” Hauptman says. He compares blacksmiths honing their skills to seasoning food, tasting as you cook to see how each tweak affects the whole.
How should a home cook test their knife?
As we begin the multi-day process of transforming a rectangular piece of steel into something that can julienne vegetables, butcher meat, and chop onions, I ask them about the best way for a home cook to test a knife. I have seen Nazz cutting a watermelon in half in a single swing on Instagram and I have delusions of grandeur about what we might get up to today. “Ideally the best way to test a knife is on what it’s going to be used for,” Nazz says. So in my case, no Fruit Ninja. “There are certain things you should be able to do with a relatively thin kitchen knife, like take a water bottle and just pop it in half real quick. But really the best tests of these things are their intended purposes. You might also test the edge on a piece of paper to see if it cuts easily.”
"What about stainless steel versus carbon?" I ask, which makes them both laugh. “That’s a loaded question,” says Nazz. “It used to be that stainless was inferior. Nowadays there are stainlesses that by most methods of measuring would be considered better, but that doesn’t include personal preference, acknowledging the history behind it, and wanting to take care of your equipment. With stainless, you don’t have to maintain it as much, but then you don’t get a lot of the tradition.”
Today, we’re getting our hands dirty old-school-style so I can see the traditional way of turning two points into one. Nazz shows me a stunning piece of folded Damascus steel, the patterned knife’s blade as intricate as a thumbprint. “During the Crusades, multiple civilizations around the world developed this technique independently and each found their own unique way of doing it, which is quite something,” he says admiringly. The blade is made up of two different alloys that started as stacked layers that were welded together. “Now we do this because it’s beautiful, but back then, this was how you beat the impurities out of the steel every time you folded it.”
It’s all a bit intimidating, but both instructors emphasize that there’s no right or wrong here. “Everyone has their own way of doing things,” says Nazz. “I’m just going to be showing you the way that I approach this process. And for me, it yields a really fantastic knife.”
The knife-making process
To start, we heat up the steel in sections before swinging a hammer down on it forcefully, which Nazz tells me is rearranging the grain of the material. It makes me feel like a bit like Thor, if Thor was an office worker who recently leveled up to using 20-pound weights at Equinox.
Laboriously, we spread and press the material from side to side. As the blade gets thinner and pointier, black scale flakes off. Our hands are covered in it. Nazz points out this is where the term “blacksmith” comes from. I totally knew that, I tell him.
As we work, they point out features I’ve noticed but never known the reason for. Apparently a little air pocket helps food release better from the blade. I think of all the times I have tried to thinly slice a cucumber and had each coin cling to my knife, getting progressively more mangled as I go. “Some Japanese knives have a stippled texture that helps with that too,” Nazz says. “The texture does a great job of getting food off of there and it also lends some strength to the knife, acting like a lattice work would.”
Standing, pushing, pounding, sharpening, we take many water breaks. It is hard work. Nazz does most of the tricky parts for me. “I’ve gotta say, this blade’s not looking that bad,” he muses after we have been sweating it out for hours in the forge.
“Gee thanks,” I say.
He's contemplating our work the way a parent might react to a craft project made from macaroni noodles. “It looks like a knife, we’re just gonna make it a little more knife-y."
We keep working, refining the edge of the blade on what looks like a giant conveyor belt of sandpaper. This is what sends sparks flying. I am playing it cool, or at least I think I am, but each part of the process is more mesmerizing than the last. There’s something very primal about it: working with your hands, using fire, making a tool so intimately connected to our survival as a species.
When we are finished for the day, we do have an undeniably knife-shaped object, albeit one without a handle (a project for another time). I am immensely proud.
Nazz and Hauptman give me to understand that they will be using this for scrap metal.
I am still proud and, also, satisfyingly filthy. On my way home, I am convinced I have a glow that’s not just from near heatstroke. One look at me and any passerby would think “Now there’s a lady who knows her way around a forge,” I am sure of it.
Looking through the interview transcripts later, I am struck by the number of times phrases like “Don’t touch that,” “Please don’t do that,” and “No, no, not there” were directed at me. When making a knife from scratch, the learning curve is steep. I now understand why the good ones cost so much money.
Don't forget to sharpen your knives!
But the forgers gave me an invaluable tip on my way out: For crying out loud, people, sharpen your knives. If you can’t remember the last time you did it, you’re overdue — and dull blades are the most likely to hurt you.
So even if your best knife comes from Ikea, do yourself a favor and keep it in decent condition. That should only cost you a couple of dollars and make you feel like a pro.
Then when you’re ready to level up, pay a visit to your friendly local bladesmith and prepare to have your mind blown.
This article was originally published on TODAY.com