“You’re very tall. You wear what . . . an 11 or 12 shoe?” The sales lady rummaged behind the desk.
“Um . . . 7 1/2.”
She resurfaced. “That’s impossible. You’re too tall to have that small of a shoe size.”
Apologetically I shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t know. That’s what it is.” She looked at me dubiously and disappeared under the counter, again.
Granted, that was a few years ago. And also granted, the arrival of 2 kids has made my feet grow into an 8. Sometimes I even get an 8 1/2 if it’s a tight one. But the fact of the matter is, I have always had small hands and feet for my height. It must run in the family– take my brother. At 6’2″ he wears a 9.5 shoe. Go figure.
And when you love to cook, trying to find a chef knife that doesn’t feel like a sword to your diminutive digits is akin to finding the yeti, then convincing him to come home for dinner and meet the parents– maybe even expecting him to whip up a delicious Baked Alaska while he’s at it.
Yeah. Not gonna’ happen.
Most of my life I’ve just used paring knives for everything– from small vegetable prep (which is what they are actually for) to deboning chickens and cutting apart the pieces through the bone (very difficult with such a teeny knife), slicing celery ribs, and mincing garlic (yes, it takes a million more chops that way). Not to mention, the signature curved “rockable blade” that chef’s knives possess is always something I longed for. I positively LONGED for a knife that was as smooth on the cutting board as a Latin lover was on the dance floor . . . deftly gliding in and out, sashaying around my vegetables and dipping them back, kissing their rosy, healthy cheeks, and sweeping them off into juxtaposed, julienned bliss.
But it wasn’t to be. The smallest chef knives have 8 inch blades, with some of the professional models sporting blades up to 12 inches long. Apparently size matters– and my fingers weren’t cutting it.
So I grumpily sawed away with my paring knives. I minced garlic and felt like I was playing with a child’s starter knife set. I stared, longingly, at the knife case at Williams Sonoma, willing my fingers to GROOOOOWWWWWW. I imagined wielding an 8 inch blade like a trained samurai . . . slicing and dicing my way to vegetable bliss. It wasn’t fair. Aren’t there chefs in this world with small hands? What do they do– learn to wear armor during meal prep so they can heft those swords? Irritated, I was searching for chef’s knives one day on Instagram, asking myself this very question . . . “What do chefs do if their hands are on the small side?” I was determined to find someone out there who had small hands, the song of cooking in his soul, and a solution to my dilemma.
I was scrolling through, half paying attention, when a photo caught my eye. It was a beautiful knife– even in the photo I could tell that it was heavy duty, well made . . . and what was that marking on it? I clicked over to the profile for a better look. Yes. It was the maker’s mark of a custom knife maker from Croatia. I glanced through his profile, more impressed by each piece that I saw. I even wrote him, asking the dimensions of the knife that had caught my eye. I knew it would be way too large, but whatever. I was used to being disappointed, where knives were concerned. I figured he probably didn’t even speak English, so I sent the message and forgot about it.
I was surprised when he actually wrote back. Indeed, alas, sigh, balderdash, and bother, the knife was, like all the others, ridiculously large. I rolled my eyes and said to myself, “I knew it. I KNEW it.” There was a prejudice out there against people with small hands. How do these kids on the mini cooking shows do it? HOW?!? I know they aren’t using full size chef knives. I was annoyed.
While we were talking, the Doc (his handle on IG is docsmithknives) finally got to the point: why was I so interested in his craft, but he couldn’t interest me in any specific knife? What exactly was I looking for? It was a hard question to answer, because I was looking for the proverbial unicorn– the perfect, scaled, teeny version of the classic Chef Knife. I wanted the blade to be between 5-6 inches long– just a shred larger than a paring knife– with the classic chef “rockability,” a blade sharp all the way back to the heel of the knife, and a thin, manageable handle. I pretty much described this “dream knife” while looking through my fingers, worried that he would say, “Um . . . yeah. No can do. This is impossible.” I thought at the very least he would laugh at me. “My dear if I had wanted to design DOLL FURNITURE I would have!” or maybe, “But if I build this knife, won’t Barbie be jealous that I stole it out of her dream house?”
But he didn’t.
We exchanged some pictures and drawings– his of sketches of the knife design, me of a tape measure alongside my hand– 3″x6″. Pictures of my paring knife. I included pictures of my small MAC knife, which has been my favorite for a long time (and will always have a special place in my heart), but that lacked the rockability I wanted in the blade, due simply to its straighter shape. He took notes. He listened carefully to what I wanted. And he said not to worry– he could build this knife for me. I admit– I was dubious. But his other pieces had been beautiful, so I allowed a flicker of hope to rise within my soul. Maybe– just maybe– he really could make the knife for me that I had so long wanted and wished existed.
Finally, one day, a small package arrived from Croatia. I had to sign for it. I was so excited that I almost dropped the box, dashing inside to slice it open and have a look at the beautiful Lady Chef– a piece whose progress I had been following since her knife “infancy,” through his photos and tutorials. The knife was incredibly well wrapped, and it took me a long time to get it open. Finally, though, the last slip of protective paper fell away, and there she was– gleaming silver in the light. I reached down and grasped the sturdy walnut handle. I have used many knives in my time– and I find that the only way to really know if a knife is a good fit is to handle it– put it through the paces, and feel the heft of it in my hands. This one felt good in my hands immediately. It was balanced– just the right weight. The blade was heavy enough to be sturdy, but not so much as to overwhelm and tire my wrist– a problem I have often had in the past with heavier knives.
So I gave the little lady a good wash and started cooking. The French have an expression– “Au Pif,” which means to cook, literally, “by the nose,” or by your senses and what feels, smells, and tastes right, rather than following a recipe. They tap their fingers lightly to their nostrils when they say it . . . almost as if truly good cooking is a secret– one that you must close your eyes and find within yourself . . . while listening to your senses. I always find that I do my best cooking Au Pif.
And that’s just what I did. My hands grasped the Lady Chef– in the proper “hold” for a Chef Knife– with the index finger and thumb gently holding the blade, itself, while the other three fingers loosely held the handle in place. Chef Knives truly are an extension of the chef, herself– down to the way they are held and move with the cook, almost as an extension of the shoulder, rather than a superfluous tool. Did you know that in a professional kitchen, everything belongs to the kitchen except the Chef’s knives? The Chef always provides his own knives– and most chefs have a trusted, extremely high quality blade that they use so flawlessly that if you aren’t watching carefully, you could almost swear that the knife was part of them. Grasping the Lady Chef, I felt like that– the smoothness of the handle, the perfect way my fingers curled around the blade . . . I felt like this knife was made for me– which, of course, it was. 🙂
I always cook with music. I put on Chopin’s Opus 9, swirled an apron around my waist, and started creating. When I am just cooking– not developing recipes, or taking notes, or testing new ingredients, but just cooking for the beauty and love of it, I often make pasta. I put my favorite Le Creuset cast iron skillet on the stove and started heating it up. The piano music drifted from the speakers, and I used Lady Chef to deftly slice into an onion . . . watching it “thlack” through the skin as if there were nothing there. I used the side of it to press a few cloves of garlic, watching them easily shed their papery skins. I glided through the garlic, using that fabulous rockability to mince it down into miniscule pieces. I twirled my way over to the stove and added some butter to my beautiful cast iron, watching it melt into a pool of liquidy loveliness on the slick, black surface. I used the Lady Chef to slide my onions and garlic into the butter and then watched them sizzle, the incredible scent filling the kitchen as I used my fingers to dust them with a little salt and pepper.
Cooking, when done right, is not a chore. It is a true experience– a gift. When you feel the grit of the salt or the freshly ground pepper between your fingers, or catch a whiff of sauteing onion or garlic . . . the splash of white wine, sizzling in the pan, making the most unbelievable fragrance in a symphony with the other flavors developing and steaming . . . it’s bliss.
The Lady chef sliced deftly through half a pound of baby Portobello mushrooms for me . . . with nary a complaint or hesitation in sight. She was happy with me. I could feel it. And the feeling was mutual.
I sliced into a lemon, quick as a flash. The golden droplets danced from my fingers into the sauce. The sizzle and smell told me that this was just right.
I poured the finished, steaming pasta into a collander, then moved it to the skillet. It swirled around the rich vegetable sauce, becoming one with it, as the steam caressed my nose. This was a beautiful dish. It was simple, but beautiful. I knew it before I even tasted it.
A simple grating of parmesan cheese overtop, and the Lady and I stepped back to see what we had made. Quite beautiful, I thought. She agreed. We were both proud of it. I knew then– we were going to make a perfect team.
Doc Smith wrote a story, here, about how this beautiful Lady was made. Please go check it out and watch the progress photos, from start to finish. He is truly an amazing artisan, with the intelligence and craftsmanship that has become a lost art in today’s world of instant gratification and products designed to break, so that we will be forced to purchase new ones. His blades are made to last. The beautiful Lady Chef and I have spent many enjoyable days together in the kitchen, since that first maiden voyage. She is starting to develop her patina, from constant usage. And I just love it. She and I can grow old together. It is such a pleasure to handle a piece of such expertly crafted equipment.
The Doc was kind enough to draw his knife blueprint a second time for me (the first sketch was used as a stencil and was destroyed) so that I could frame it and hang it in my kitchen, which I did– right by my workspace, so that I can always be reminded of the beauty of this piece, and how special it is that someone took the time to make it just for me.
To the talented Doc Smith, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for such a beautiful, finely crafted blade. No knife has ever felt better in my hands, or more perfectly the right size and shape. And I know that each time I mince garlic with the beautifully fine, rockable blade, or slice juicy, ripe peaches from the farmer’s market for freshly churned ice cream, or maybe slice into crisp, autumn apples for a pie, I will smile at that sketch hanging on my wall, and halfway across the world, I will smile and think of you.
“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness.” — John Keats
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