The Parable of the Knife: how good tools make for right living and a just society
[including a quick illustrated guide to some key features of fine kitchen knives]
If the world’s top marketing experts worked together to create the perfect brand and product story to sell me something expensive I don’t strictly need, it would be something like the below 2012 promo for German cutlery maker Zwilling J.A. Henckels’ newly-introduced ZWILLING Pro line.
What if they’re quite right, though, and I should get one of these knives? In this essay, I shall explain how I’ve decided it is so, from considerations of design thinking and socialism, the truth in marketing, ZWILLING Pro’s subtle yet perfect design, my remaining life aspirations, and the classic Taoist parable of the ox-butcher.
Really, I’m not imagining things. Zwilling is definitely talking straight to me, with great charm and effect, in my current journey to get a new, high-quality chef or prep knife. A German ZWILLING Pro knife would, after all, fit in nicely with my German car (Jetta), fountain pens (Lamy, Kaweco), safety razor (Merkur), favourite power tools (Bosch), lifelong default casual shoes (Adidas Samba), and beloved Zwilling serrated kitchen knife, can opener, nail clippers, pizza cutter, corkscrew/bottle-opener, and collectors-item spring-handle spatula. [not to suggest my tastes are narrow! one of my 2 chairs came from way over the border in Denmark — a Hans J. Wegner style, modern woven rush chair, inherited. My watch is Danish, Skagen; and, from over a different border, my favorite cutlery is the Oslo line from Dutch retailer HEMA, and my pans of choice, Dutch BK carbon-steel].
All of which revealed preference might well be why this video was suggested to me on YouTube. (algorithms! sometimes they work).
I’m not sure I had a choice in this matter. German design preference was perhaps instilled in me partly from my father owning a VW Beetle, later my parents a VW hatchback, and later, pictured, a classic Wimbledon green BMW 2002, as I wrote about in 2012 after buying a VW; and the Danish furniture).
In any case, the ZWILLING Pro video strikes a chord with me, first by its delightful near-parody level homage to German / North Italian design/manufacturing high craft culture. This is woven into, of course, a compelling parable about right living, the arc of historical and self-improvement, the finer things and the finer distinctions.
All this is spiced and edged with an inspiring, infectious soundtrack: Italian hip-hop anthem, “Gente che spera” (“People with hope”), 2002, by Milano’s Articolo 31. Carefully chosen for lyrics as well as musical effect:
“L’intera umanità che si chiede il perché di una rincorsa senza fine/
Verso ciò che non c’è..”
(“The whole world is asking the reason why of this endless pursuit/
Towards what is not there”).
The whole world is asking, and ZWILLING is answering. The endless pursuit of (self-)perfection, the path of the people of hope, can begin right here, right now, every day, with so humble an action as upgrading right away to the world’s best kitchen knives. (I joke, but perhaps it’s significantly true even if it is also marketing? You never know!).
“Of course a knife consists of a blade and a handle, and that’s about it,” observes ZWILLING Chief Technical Officer, Dr. Joachim Droese, disingenuously, near the video’s start. Knowing, as he does, that he and the global marketing team are about to totally reel a fair number of us in with an irresistible product story, that soon will make our lives feel unbearably incomplete, joyless, wasted on inessentials, and rudderless, without a ZWILLING Pro knife.
It heads towards entertaining parody when the suave yet avuncular designer, Matteo Thun (from the north Italian-Germano borderland the Tyrol, and based in Milano, of course) goes philosophically into the Zen paradox of great design’s invisibility, and the “World in a grain of sand” of perfect form. It’s not too, too far from the custom amplifiers in mockumentary This is Spın̈al Tap’s whose volume controls go up to 11 rather than 10:
“The first feature is that there is no visible feature. That is why we call it ‘no design.’”
“This detail is [Thun lovingly traces the blade-to-bolster arc].. it looks nice, it looks smooth, but it was several years of work, because nobody has ever done a smooth radius between the thick part and the thin part.”
“The whole process we went through with the technicians in Germany was about defining a very little detail, but a century of innovation.”
“This product is definitely a perfect product..The design lasts forever, but if you go carefully into details, you understand that for several reasons, it belongs to the twenty-first century.”
The perfect design in invisible, yet it is also self-evident, for those chosen to chose ZWILLING Pro. We are like the fertile soil upon which the mustard seed of God’s Word falls, in the Biblical parable.
“Your fingers, they love to touch the handle. Or, your fingers, they hate to touch the handle…”
These aren’t cheap baubles, by any means. But what’s life for? Why live in the darkness, of sub-par tools? As ZWILLING Dr. Droese observes, “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price has been forgotten.”
Preach, Dr. Droese. I hear you. I was made to hear you.
An illustrated guide to some key features of fine kitchen knives
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour”
— William Blake. “Auguries of Innocence.”
Look, if this all seems a bit much, fancified, or getting a bit too particular (oh constant refrains in my life), then I say: walk a mile in my shoes, pal. Let’s talk about knife buying. It just so turns out that there really aren’t many options for someone, like me, looking for a versatile, heirloom-quality, primary knife with the following half-dozen fine-kitchen-knife characteristics. Let me explain and defend with a short, illustrated, explanatory tour.
Feature 1: drop forged.
This means the knife is formed by pounding down a slab of the steel to the shape desired. As opposed to stamped, as generally used for cheaper knives, in which the blade is cut out of an strip of thinner steel, and ground off or impressed on a side to form the cutting edge.
I try to show in the photographs here, of my old, drop-forged J.A. Henckels International 6" chef knife, some qualities associated with drop forging. First, though not visible, it’s said that the shaping process in forging aligns the steel’s grain texture to the form, making it stronger. Yes, steel has microscopic crystalline structure with forms, which matter to how the shaped object performs and feels; it isn’t just a homogeneous extent of matter. Like the lines of force in your arm and hand extended via a knife, or like anything in life, the crystalline grain of a knife blade has a way, a dao; or it doesn’t.
Probably more important, however, and observable, is that forging means the blade piece can have 3-dimensional form, out of a single forged metal piece, rather than welding bits on (ugggh).
Such as a) the bolster in between the blade area and handle, shown below, where the blade area widens to the thickness of the handle — strengthening the descending area of blade, and letting this blade area be shaped for holding in the chef-preferred, precise, finger-tip pinch grip on the blade (see 2nd below):
Forging also facilitates creating a continuous tapering of the blade from thicker back edge to thinner front edge (top to bottom, in the picture below). This lets the thicker side provide blade strength, while keeping the cutting side thinner to slide through food and sharpen more easily.
Forging also facilitates shaping the blade to be tapered from base to point, as in picture below, so it can be thicker where needed for strength, rather than uniformly thick as with a stamped knife. It helps the blade not get stuck in food, and helps create that perfect distribution of firm yet deft which characterizes right living.
Feature 2: with a bolster — the widening at the base of the knife where it meets handle — as traditional on German knives; a curved one, to nestle and protect the leading finger gripping handle. Check the knives in your kitchen — if they’re basic knives like most, you’ll see the blade piece is just a flat strip of steel that probably disappears into some kind of plastic or perhaps wood handle, there’s no thickened bolster like this to support blade edge and cradle your grip right to the blade. Besides, it looks and feels sleeeek when you consider it closely, and you’re going to look foolish threatening a burglar or trying to stab anything with some puny, ribbony, unbolstered thing.
Feature 3: …but, not a traditional full bolster, going the full width of the blade, as above. A full bolster makes the knife much harder to hone and sharpen yourself, since you need to either grind off this far thicker steel part, or sharpen just the blade area before it. Over time this causes a common problem where the blade edge recede from the bolster edge, like this:
When the blade recedes due to sharpening, there will be a gap between that part of the blade and the cutting surface, as shown by the light gap in photo above. This means the knife won’t fully cut through food there…kind of a basic and disappointing problem for a knife to have!
So an elegant, not very common solution is to, in effect, form a partial or half bolster, like the ZWILLING Pro knives do, that supports the descending blade edge and provides a curved nestle for one’s finger, yet leaves the blade edge clear, for easier and more precise honing / sharpening. It’s a kind of golden mean between the traditional German bolster-ended blade and the more delicate Japanese style bolster-less design. Besides, check out what an beautiful three-dimensional juncture of planes this creates.
Note also that this ZWILLING Pro knife is marked “Made in Germany”: as typical with the top brands, the top quality lines are made in the home country, usually Japan or Germany; lesser tiers like my Henckels International in other countries (Spain, for mine), and the lowest tiers in China. Yes, sophisticated brands have sub-brands! it’s one of many forms of price discrimination, designed to finely slice the market.
Feature 4: also, an angled bolster edge as above — fairly unique to ZWILLING Pro’s design — because unlike the traditional, long-unquestioned perpendicular bolster, it actually matches the typical angles of one’s fingers in pinch grip. Compare visually how my thumb and forefinger are falling at awkward 45-degree angles against the bolster on the old-style J.A. Henkels chef knife, pictured below, vs how they would fall flush (forefinger) and perpendicular (thumb) with the ZWILLING Pro’s angled bolster edges, above.
When you see it, you recoil to think what fate was being dealt your poor gripping fingers before. Or to think that humankind has suffered the yoke, for centuries, of trying to pinch-grip blades with vertical bolsters, just because nobody thought to do it differently.
Feature 5. an upward-curving blade front, and blade point on axis with the handle, German/French chef knife style, to support the forward-back rocking style of cutting.
Feature 6. but a long straight section on the blade back, for sliding and picking up ingredients off a cutting board, and the more Japanese / Chinese up-and-down chop cutting style;
Feature 7. balanced for pinch-grip and my hand/preference.
Overall weight, and the balance point between blade and handle, are crucial characteristics of a knife. There isn’t exactly a right answer, since hands, uses, and preferences vary; yet, well-designed knives will be well-considered on this point.
This is elegantly illustrated by my J.A. Henckels 6" chef’s knife if laid on a flat surface as shown below. It balances delicately just around the first rivet in handle, closest to blade, exactly where one’s middle finger will rest if holding the knife in chef-style pinch grip. Both the tip of blade and the end of handle, in this position, hover a millimeter or two above the surface, either way you lay the knife down — keeping the blade always suspended in air, as you’d want for keeping it dry and clean. The knife can be spun around on the balance point with hardly any friction, doesn’t shift at all across the surface, and zero wobble. It’s rather a magical and ethereal, even divine effect to observe, for such a purposeful and solid object.
Anyway, the seven features discussed above are my slightly oblique tour of essential fine-knife characteristics. Other things matter, of course, such as the steel type(s) and possibly layers, the initial sharpness and maintainability of the edge, the type of tang (blade extension that fits into or forms the handle), the handle material, etc. But those points are fairly obvious and routinely described. If you don’t entirely trust my review/tour of the ZWILLING Pro, and frankly you shouldn’t, then watch this good video review by Boston chef/teacher Helen Rennie explaining why it’s her choice; or everyone else’s video reviews.
Then again this is all rather oblique, in that my knife or cooking skills don’t in any way rise to the level of requiring or matching these refinements discussed. But a guy can hope. A journey of a thousand miles, etc; and unlike other steps, daily meals are something you have to do and will do anyway, so one might as well try to self-improve with one of those few things that, even for me, have a some internal momentum. A Way, a Dao.
You might also suspect, with some basis, that there’s a bit of a cult around adopting these larger ‘Chef’(or ‘Santoku’, Japanese type equivalent) knives as one’s personal kitchen samurai sword. Perhaps it has a lot to do with a kind of guild, insider, esoteric mumbo-jumbo taught and maintained by the culinary schools and knife industry, often not so relevant to everyday cooks or your particular hands and needs. I’ve seen even famous chefs extol certain cheap, stamped, molded-plastic handle, usually small serated knives as ones they love and constantly use. Far be it for any sensible design critic to tell people not to use what works for them — our point should generally be the opposite.
But for me, what do I know? Many generations of the most skilled, acclaimed, and joyous cooks went down the path of learning, appreciating, mastering, and lifelong depending on these more refined knives and knife practices. Many wonderful things, one wouldn’t discover or regularly appreciate unless some application were made to respecting and learning about it. Also, even if I don’t yet cut things much better or more efficiently with my chef’s knife than with one of my handy, fall-back, plastic, serrated steak-knives, I do already find the higher-quality chef’s knife more pleasing in feel and beautiful. As I go on, I find it working better, and see how it can be safer, more precise, more effective and efficient, if used well. It gets better. Many things don’t, or haven’t. I appreciate that.
Where is it going? To the promise of sanctifying the everyday, at least moments of it. The hope of epiphany, of having at least one moment of perfect alignment, balance, or flow in a day. As Jesus said: Man does not live by bread alone. We can even integrate, by making one’s daily bread with perfect and pleasurable tools. For William Morris — father of the Arts and Crafts movement and moving force of early British socialist movement — this is not luxury, but the opposite: the means and proof of a just society: “Nothing should be made by man’s labour which is not worth making; or which must be made by labour degrading to the makers.” (“Art and Socialism,” 1884).
As you can see, for the chosen, the tribe — those on the sharp receiving end of the ZWILLING Pro marketing effort: we will soon be needing this product, for our lives to go on; for our lives to make any further sense. Our prior and subsequent lives may be cut cleanly in two by this intervention. Like Saul struck down by the Lord on the road to Damascus, to become Paul. Or like ancient Chinese Lord Wen-hui observing the dextrous butcher/cook in ancient Taoist classic the Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi). Which, ok, is the real Parable of the Knife, that I was sort of travestying here with my commentary, and because Tim sounds like Ting in the story. So on to, finally,
the Taoist parable of the knife, also known as that of the butcher:
“This is marvelous!” said Lord Wen-hui, observing Cook Ting. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”
Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied.
“What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now — now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup..and follow things as they are.
“A good cook need sharpen his blade but once a year. He cuts cleanly. An awkward cook sharpens his knife every month. He chops. I’ve used this knife for nineteen years, carving thousands of oxen. Still the blade is as sharp as the first time it was lifted from the whetstone. At the joints there are spaces, and the blade has no thickness. Entering with no thickness where there is space, the blade may move freely where it will: there’s plenty of room to move. Thus, after nineteen years, my knife remains as sharp as it was that first day.”
“Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!”
— Chuang Tzu, translated by Burton Watson. (Chuang Tzu: The Basic Writings, 1964). in, The Dextrous Butcher: four translations, from Bureau of Public Secrets.
Zwilling J.A. Henckels is based in the small Rhine-Ruhr city of Solingen, as is most of Germany’s knife/blade industry. Solingen has been a blacksmith’s center since ancient times, and was exporting its production to England already in Anglo-Saxon times.
(comparable “City of Blades” for other countries are Sheffield, England; Seki City, Japan; Portland, USA; and the largest global center today, said to make 75% of the world’s knives: Yangjiang City, Guangdong province, China).
ZWILLING Pro 7" Chef Knife on Amazon.
p.s. I’m not likely to get one of these knives anytime soon, since I don’t have the money to spare, can fight on a bit longer with my old 6" Zwilling chef’s and other knives, and in any case may have already gotten much of the savor & satisfaction of the ZWILLING Pro by writing this essay. But if you’d like to buy me one, that’d be fine, keen even. Or buy two and split with me to keep one, pay the piper.