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Talking Knives With Knifemaker Adam Simha

Ice cream maker for Toscanini's, M.I.T grad, James Beard Award-winning baker: all are occupations on Adam Simha's resume. Taking a welding class on a whim, Simha fell in love with the craft, and from there, he became passionate about making custom-built knives for some the city's finest and most talented chefs. In this installment of At the Source, Eater chats with Simha at his knife studio, a virtually-nondescript brick building near his Cambridge home, to find out how he got here.

How does one get into this line of work?

"I didn't want to be one of those 'knife guys.'"

[Laughs.] Well, it's a couple different things that led to this. When I got out of college, I went to work to try on the food industry. I got a great entry-level line position. It was very old school, you know; cut up 5,000 onions and take apart 5,000 chickens. I kind of meandered away from it to go to music school. But I came back as a baker and did that for awhile. Then I ran into some ongoing issues with my arms and hands, so that toppled that. I took a welding class, almost on a whim. I had an idea for a coat rack and asked around if anyone knew how to weld. When I found out how much something like that would cost, I was shocked and just figured that I could pay for a class and learn to do it myself for that kind of money. I think it was the first or maybe second day that I was like, [sniffs the air] Fire! Electricity! I've found my home.

I just thought, My god, I love this, and I was in there every minute I could be. I just kept taking classes and ended up taking a blade-smithing class and not thinking too much of it; I didn't want to be one of those "knife guys." But I was about four years in by the time I took this class, and the same thing happened again; I just felt at home. I was amazed at what you could bring out of material with just fire and a hammer, care, and knowledge. It was just amazing.

Do you remember the first knife you made?

I remember my first knife, and it came out pretty well. The guy teaching the class gave me the sly warning and said, "You know, you could probably do this if you applied yourself, but be forewarned, this is a disease for which there is no cure." I've told this story hundreds of times, and everyone always chuckles, as did I at the time — but slowly but surely, he was right. I kept doing it for fun, and then I set this place up in 2001 and acquired everything through auctions. This used to be an office for truck dispatchers, and it was as nasty as you could probably imagine.

At first I was making a lot of furniture, but as the furniture got bigger and bigger, I realized I wanted to make smaller things, and the knives kept creeping back up. So I designed a line of knives here, and shopped them around. That took me to England because no manufacturer here was interested in talking about 100 or 200 pieces of anything. That worked well, but then I ended up in Italy. The customs in Italy are brutal, and it's tough to ship knives. So I came back here, and manufacturers were interested in talking about everything again.

How did you get to where you are today in custom knife-making?

Thanks to my lovely wife, who is always right. Every time I would do a custom knife, I'd bring them upstairs, and she'd tell me that they were beautiful and that I should just do that. It took awhile, but I eventually realized that she was right, and I learned how to do things more efficiently and did more research. It's a pretty laborious process, but I have a lot of notes. I'd follow the knives that I made a year or two later, and that was always the big thing for me — after it's been used to death, seeing how that steel or handle performed. I've got people like Jason Bond, who is just so patient and such a wonderful guy. But the stuff that I learned from him while making a knife for him was incredible. He has such a unique way about cooking, but I had to pay attention to his precise body mechanics and make a small adjustment that worked. It was such a great opportunity to up my game here.

I also fix old knives, and I'll have people call up and tell me that they've had something for many years and it's broken, and they'll ask me to fix it. I tell them to bring it in and we'll figure it out.

What's it like working with the chefs to design a knife?

"I could watch several [chefs] take down a pig, and they're all going to do it very differently."

I made a cleaver for Jamie Bissonnette; he is one of my favorite patron saints, and he asked me to make him something that he could scrape bones with, and I was just like, Cool. Let's do this.

It's interesting watching chefs work, if I get that opportunity. I could watch several of them take down a pig, and they're all going to do it very differently. And sometimes they aren't used to articulating what they are doing, so it helps me to watch it. We have this great back and forth because sometimes what they are saying is different from what their actions do. It can be a little frustrating to get it straight, but sometimes it's a matter of walking away from it and thinking about it. I'll wait until I get it right, and I'll take notes on it all. Stuff like that just makes this so exciting though.

What is the process like for someone who wants a knife made by you?

Usually it starts with a phone call or email. Usually it's because they've seen a picture of something that I've done, and they contact me. Then we'll get into the customization and make adjustments. Everything for the most part can be customized, but it can be a little overwhelming. Some people really want to get into the nitty-gritty, and some people really don't. I'm happy to do it either way.

Sometimes people come to me and aren't sure what they want but they just don't want to use crappy knives anymore and they want to invest in something good. Those people are really a pleasure because they're really getting into it and it has the effect that I do it for — creating something that people want to use — and if someone really likes it, they want to cook more, and if they want to cook more, they're thinking about food more, and it's just life-changing. People have said that to me, and it just makes my heart sing. It sounds a little corny, but it's true. If anything happens to the knife, I'll just fix that. I don't care what happened; I'll just fix it and people like that.

Do you have a favorite knife?

"My kitchen is like The Island of Doctor Moreau, where all the weirdos go."

That's a good question. My kitchen is like The Island of Doctor Moreau, where all the weirdos go. Except for things I make for my wife — she guards those. Honestly the knife I probably use the most is the one that I had when I met with Dexter Knife Company and they gave me the steel that they use. It was just a simple, white-handled knife, and I put a really high angle edge on it, and it performed remarkably well. I was really impressed. It's still up in my kitchen, and it gets the snot beaten out of it.