Would You Buy a $400 Chef's Knife?
High-end custom knives run from $400 to $40,000. Here's what makes them so expensive, and why they could be worth it.
Buying an expensive knife won't turn you into an excellent cook anymore than going to the Container Store will make you an organized person. But well-crafted custom knives are things of physical beauty, and they can have a kind of talismanic power. Super-luxury chef's knives start at about $400, and go up from there. Famously, some custom knives, like those from legendary knife maker Bob Kramer, sell for upwards of $500 an inch. At auction, Kramer's knives often fetch prices in the low-to-mid five figures.
A very fancy chef's knife is also a kind of paradox. A chef's knife, the 8- to 10-inch blade used for everything from breaking down chickens to dicing vegetables, is a tool that gets used frequently. As such, it's often subject to wear and tear, dings and scratches. It's a Ferrari that needs to be used like a Jeep. Plus, plenty of excellent professional chefs use knives that are in the $20 to $50 range to make incredible food.
So why buy a $400 knife? What are you getting from spending that much?
The answer, most obviously, is the labor of an accomplished bladesmith. Geoff Feder is one of those, a Hudson Valley-based sculptor and chef who got into bladesmithing by way of blacksmithing. He co-hosts a podcast called Knife Talk on the nitty-gritty of making knives, and hosts his own, Full Blast, where he interviews makers of all kinds. Feder, in short, knows his knives, from both the perspective of a person who makes them and a person who uses them in the kitchen. And he says that a major component of the cost of a nice custom knife is not just the labor, but the metal itself.
"What makes a knife a knife is the steel, and the preparation of the steel," Feder said. "A lot of people have the idea that you get a lawnmower blade and put a handle on it. That's not the case. A knife has to be super thin, has to have the right geometry, it's constantly being performed with. There's so much more to it. Nice steel isn't like rebar. It's expensive because it has more carbon in it."
And then you have to forge that steel into a workable object by maintaining the right temperature to ensure the knife has some degree of flexibility. You're hoping to construct the knife so it'll stand up to daily use and maintain sharpness for as long as possible. "You can overshoot and burn the steel," Feder said. "This is what makes high-end bladesmithing so much labor. There's so much work in getting your steel right."
Quality steel is also the focus at Artisan Revere, a high-end knife brand that was launched on Kickstarter. Founder David Olkovetsky worked in finance for a decade before getting into the world of culinary equipment. One day, he needed a new kitchen knife, and went into a big box store to try some out, but he thought all of them had glaring design flaws.
"I just thought I could design a much better knife," he said over the phone. "I thought I would do a super-standard direct-to-consumer playbook. Take a product that you have a problem with, put on a bell and whistle, cut the price by half, bring in a branding agency. The more I got into it, I realized that's not how it would work."
First, he realized he wanted to work with a metal that wasn't standard stainless or carbon steel. "I know way more about steel than I do about knives," he said. "The superpower I developed through working as a research analyst is looking at complex information and putting out some kind of output. I'm a little bit of an amateur metallurgist, and I worked on researching steel companies, which came in handy."
Olkovetsky decided to develop his own knife with a Swedish metal called "Elmax super steel" that only became available in the United States in 2009. The common line about knives is you can have something that's wider and more heavyset and thus more durable, but doesn't keep an edge as long. Or you can have something thinner that holds on to an edge well, but isn't as durable. The advantage of using Elmax is that it allowed Olkovetsky to make knives that are very thin, but also resistant to chipping. "The idea was a knife that cuts as well as the Japanese thin laser-like knives, but tough enough that they won't chip," he said. "The only way to achieve that was using a super steel, a steel that's gone through the powder metallurgy processing."
Olkovetsky studied the shape of a knife and focused on elements that he found off-putting as a home cook, specifically the spines of knives, which often rub into the hand of the person using them, causing calluses to form. "I tried to make the knife less scary for intermediate cooks," Olkovetsky explained. "You can't cut yourself on the heel."
The Artisan Revere chef's knife sells for $445, which is steep for a knife from a kitchenware store, but on the low end for a luxury knife. The idea is that it will handle better than a knife you can buy from a kitchenware store, hold an edge for longer, and outlast other models, even with regular use. For his next project, a set of steak knives, he's working in a butcher shop to get a better sense for what he's looking for.
Both Olkovetsky and Feder, through different methods, are trying to solve a core problem with the knifemaking industry: Most of the knives made for home cooks and chefs aren't designed by people who love to cook. Problems arise when they're thought of as blades first, rather than handheld, frequently used tools. And that is what knife makers want—for the knives to be used, not just look good on a wall. "Whatever you damage, we can fix. I want people to be comfortable using it, no matter their skill level," Olkovetsky said.
Feder echoed that. "I want my customers to be comfortable with what they have. I want my customers to use them, to kick the knife's ass and keep using it." Feder's customers are usually home cooks, and before he makes a knife for them, he gets a sense of what they cook most often, so he can keep that in mind while he's designing and making the blade.
Of course, you can also kick around a $40 knife, and most people do. Like copper pots and other cult kitchenware, the value of a very nice knife depends on the person who uses it. The detailed work that Feder puts into his knives might mean you use it more often while also admiring it as an object on your wall. The super steel of Artisan Revere might be worth it to you if you're not satisfied with what's already on your knife bar. If it enhances your life, and you can afford it, there's no reason why you shouldn't invest in a high-end knife. The pleasure of using a tool that is constructed precisely for the job you're attempting is no small thing. But then, neither is $400.