This article was originally published in Dutch on MUNCHIES NL.
More often than not, chefs are bone tired. But ask them about their favorite knives and, without exception, their faces light up. It's almost impossible to describe the special bond that exists between chef and knife, but we'll try anyway. Today, Belgian knifesmith Dimitri Turcott Smekens shares the story of his unique introduction to his craft.
I meet Turcott at his studio in Zoersel, a borough of Antwerp, Belgium. For the past two years, the knifesmith has been working in an old barn right next to his house, which is surrounded by open fields. People passing by would never guess that inside of this building, instead of sheep and haystacks, there is steel and wood, the resources of a man who figured out how to make knives all by himself.
During those survival trips, the importance of a good knife became clear. "I was looking for a good knife, but the one I wanted was very expensive. So I thought: why don't I try to make my own knives?
"I have a very obsessive personality", he continues. "When I want something, I really go for it. Knife-making is a dying craft, so I read old books, did a lot of online research, and visited many knifemakers all over the world." In every new country he visits, Turcott looks for a local blacksmith. "In Borneo, I searched for days, until I ended up in a tiny village with all of these knifesmiths. I bought a parang (a type of machete) there and used my hands and feet to talk [to the blacksmith] about his materials. That knife was made out of leaf springs from trucks, and he made it using less resources than we have here. Very impressive!"
Meanwhile, Turcott keeps 60 knives from all over the world in his house. "This hobby got so out of hand, I go looking for resources when I'm traveling. From India, for instance, I brought a little over 15 pounds of steel. From other countries, I bring six or seven other pieces of material, from hatchets to machetes. They are my study materials. At customs, they often stop me, but I'm not doing anything illegal. I don't really understand that people associate knives with danger. It doesn't have to be a lethal weapon. People handle knives on a daily basis to cut sandwiches and open cardboard boxes, right?"
Turcott made his first knife 10 years ago. "What surprised me the most is the difference between the second and third knife I made. The second was so good, I could hardly believe I had made it. To this day, that knife is displayed on my mantle; it serves as a reminder of the moment I decided to continue doing this, because it turned out I really had a knack for it."
At that time, he didn't have any equipment to work with, so it took him six months to figure out how to properly finish the knife. He spent all of his spare time polishing the knife with a file. "Have you ever tried to polish steel using a file? I can tell you one thing: it's a lot of work."
Turcott started with some black coal, a piece of old train track he used as an anvil, a hammer, and a small forge. "I started out by hitting pieces of warm metal and made a lot of mistakes during this DIY-exploring phase. With every attempt, I gained new insights, and it's due to my mistakes that I really learned how to do this well."
He took his first line of knives to De Invasie ('the invasion'), a convention for young designers. "There, I sold almost all of my knives and I got many positive responses from the people who had bought them." These days, he makes knives for chefs in a workspace filled with professional equipment.
Turcott starts a fire and shows me how he manipulates a piece of metal. It's been polished very roughly, and once the metal becomes hot enough to turn red, he takes it out of the flames so he can pound on it. Once the orange hue of the heat fades, he sticks it back in the fire. "You easily end up a few hours pounding the metal", he says. "Ultimately, it becomes smaller, until it's very thin. Chef's knives are thinner than survival knives, which makes them a lot more fragile. The secret is temperature control, so you don't burn the steel while you're working. In a few seconds, you can potentially ruin a week's worth of work."
Different kinds of steel, wood, and leather litter his workspace. "The most fascinating aspect of making knives is starting out with raw materials and making a beautiful and useful tool out of them. I don't do anything with computers [in here]. That's a breath of fresh air, after I've spent a lot of hours behind a screen in a dark room while working in the music industry."
It isn't always easy to acquire the right materials, especially because Turcott focuses on sustainability as much as he possibly can. "I mostly look for materials I have a personal affinity with. I use the horn of a water buffalo, for instance, which is also used to make traditional Japanese knives. But recently I discovered that the horns of a bull are also great to work with. They look very good once polished and people just throw them away. Why would the horn of a bull be inferior?"