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10.11.10

The Knife Master

The authors of The New Brooklyn Cookbook speak to cult knife maker Joel Bukiewicz about his thriving business and why people are willing to wait months for the perfect blade.

Before he started making knives, Joel Bukiewicz wrote a novel. No publisher wanted to buy it. So he started another one. After about 150 pages, he gave up that one, too. “It was terrible,” he says. “It was awful.” He stopped writing, but he needed a creative outlet. So he started making knives. And he was good at it. Really good. So he started selling them. Holy shit, he thought. People want to pay me for these? They do—and they’re willing to wait. As of this writing, if you order a knife from Bukiewicz—a knife that he makes entirely by hand in his cluttered workshop, Cut Brooklyn beneath the Smith-Ninth Street stop on the F train—you’ll get it a year later.

You started out making hunting knives in Georgia. That’s pretty far—physically as well as culturally—from making kitchen knives in Brooklyn.

Yeah. There’s a whole subculture devoted to these knife shows. It’s not a complete crossover with gun shows, but it’s not exactly my people. Don’t get me wrong: There are really great people in that world. I just felt like I was at the wrong college or something. So, knowing that I was coming back to Brooklyn, I thought, Let’s start designing a kitchen line. How hard can it be? It turned out to be really hard. I probably went through 40 prototypes before I got it right.

Who taught you how to do this?

Nobody. I’ve never actually visited another knife-maker’s shop. I’m self-taught. I just read up as much as I could.

Never visited a single shop? That’s amazing.

I know, it’s a little weird. It could be I’m doing everything completely backward. But there are plenty of books out there that tell you the basics. I mean, there’s only maybe five or six steps involved. Of course, there’s a difference between knowing what they are and being able to do them well. But I was just good at it really fast. I take my time. What you give up is speed.

How long does it take you to make a knife?

Ten to 12 hours each, for the larger pieces.

What’s been the hardest thing for you to master?

Grinding is a really weird thing, when you grind a blade freehand. On any given day, it never seems exactly the same. One day my one hand—like when I grind this way I’ll be doing great, and then this way it’ll be all weird. I can’t get the lines that I want. If it just isn’t working, I’ll walk away for ten or 15 minutes. That’s one of the best things I’ve learned here in the shop. If things aren’t going well, you gotta just back off.

It’s exactly like that. It didn’t take me long to recognize the really close parallels between busting my ass to turn out a thousand words a day and trying to turn out a knife. You work your butt off and at the end of the day you’ve done something beautiful and good. And that’s all it is. It’s just work, you know? Maybe it’s a book or maybe it’s a story or a photograph or a knife. There’s a certain methodology to good work. The patience that’s required. And I think that’s part of the reason that people are doing so well in the borough now. None of these guys [making artisanal food in Brooklyn] is interested in being a millionaire tomorrow.

They just want to do things right. I’m OK producing six knives a week for now. And if you can be patient like that, and love the work for what it is, then I think that shows in the results. And it improves your own quality of life.

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Any particularly gruesome injury stories?

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The New Brooklyn Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from 31 Restaurants that Put Brooklyn on the Culinary Map. By Melissa Vaughn, Brendan Vaughn, Michael Harlan Turkell. 272 pages. William Morrow Cookbooks. $40. ()

Like writing.No, knock on wood, nothing too bad. But I’ve poked myself good a couple times. Last year I was getting knives ready for the Unfancy Food Show. The night before, I was hustling to get some stuff done. It was like four in the morning, and I had just finished one of these Frenchstyle knives, but the handle wasn’t on it yet. I was going over here [points to a piece of equipment], and I felt like I brushed my arm. I looked down at it, and this rope of blood just went [makes a shooting sound and an arcing motion through the air]. I was like Woaahhhh. I put a cotton ball and some duct tape around it, and it stopped. But it’s only a matter of time before something bad happens.

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