"You need only three knives for nearly everything you do in the kitchen"
A particularly sharp interview with Tomer Botner, founder of Florentine Kitchen Knives.
To celebrate the release of our new book The Craft and the Makers: Tradition with Attitude, we're publishing a series of interviews with some of the outstanding craftspeople featured in the book—starting with Tel Aviv-based knifemaker Tomer Botner. Founded in 2012, his Florentine Kitchen Knives are sought by connoisseurs from all over the world, and therefore regularly sold out. In Germany they're available exclusively at the Gestalten Pavilion in Berlin.
Let's get this out of the way: Japanese or Western style?
I usually work with a Western-style knife since that is the food I cook and the cutting method I work with.
What do you like about knives?
On a personal level I just like the tool. It's very straightforward. It has beauty and danger. When it feels good in your hand you just fall in love with it and when it works well you fall in love again. Professionally I love the challenge of trying to improve something that has been around forever, a tool that has a very specific task to perform. To make that happen in the best way possible is an everlasting challenge. To try and make something that people would desire after seeing so many of these tools throughout their lifetimes and to succeed gives me a great sense of accomplishment.
What makes a good knife?
The quality of the raw materials, the quality of the heat treatment or forging process, and the geometry of the blade... plus a whole lot of other things.
Why did you decide to launch a knife brand?
I was forced into it. Before starting my design degree I did many things, including work as a bartender, a waiter, a restaurant manager, and a line cook. So when the time came to decide on my final project it was a natural thing to go into the kitchen. The first thing I was passionate to try was the knife. So I dedicated one year to make two knives and the resulting project was well received in the local and international media. But what really pushed me to go for it was the result of my decision to document the whole process on my Instagram account and upload it to a blog on Tumblr that I named "the making of: Florentine kitchen knives". Instagram picked up on that and posted a small paragraph about this blog and a few of my pics on their page a couple of weeks after I graduated. Over the next 24 hours my phone practically exploded and I set up a waiting list without having the slightest idea how I was going to do this. I had no money, so I started a crowdfunding campaign while I was looking for help with the manufacturing. Luckily it worked out and FKK began.
How many times did you try before you had a knife you were happy with?
I'm not the kind of guy to ever be completely happy with something. I'm still working on improving my products and I'm still learning something new every day. But for the sake of answering the question: it took me between a year and a-year-and-a-half to make each batch. That's dozens of models and hundreds of computer and design hours.
How did you improve on existing knife designs?
I don't claim that my knives are better than everyone else's and my design is based on many techniques from the history of knife-making. But being trained as a designer, probably unlike most knife makers, I think I have a good understanding of lines, shapes, compositions, human engineering and ergonomics, design and art history, and also a familiarity with technology and manufacturing techniques. Combining all this with my passion for food and the culinary world, and my early experience and studies in media, history, and philosophy, what I can and want to make is unique, just like everyone else.
How many knives do you have in your kitchen?
Right now I have nine knives on my knife rack, eight of which I use regularly. The one I don’t use is a Spanish jamón knife that for the lack of jamón is a decorative piece (it's not easy to get jamón in Israel, you pretty much have to smuggle it in). I have two FKK 200mm chef’s knives, one from AEB-L steel and one from D2 CPM steel; a 225mm German Burgvogel chef’s knife, which was the first knife I bought to learn from when I started making knives; a FKK/Jewish Museum challah knife, the first ever made; a 240mm gyuto-style knife by Randy Haas (gyuto are the Japanese interpretation of Western-style knives); a 210mm Takamura Octagon Gyuto; an FKK 120mm dinner knife which I use as a paring knife; and my favourite piece, a little Kiridashi made out of leftover steel, a present from my friend Joel Bukiewicz of Cut Brooklyn.
What knives do you consider indispensable in a normal person's kitchen?
You really need three knives for 99.9 percent of what you would normally do in the kitchen. A 200-240mm chef’s knife for everything you do on the cutting bord, a paring knife for everything you do in your hands, and a bread knife (because I hate sliced bread).
You work a lot with clients. How do their knife needs vary, and how do you decide what knife to make?
I rather say that I collaborate with my clients. It's a process I like to do together. Defining the object is pretty simple, we have plenty of words for that — bread knife, dinner knife, butcher knife etc. The tricky part is getting the vibe of the entity or person you are working with and translating it to lines, shapes, and materials. It's a lot of research and a lot of intuition. People don't really know what they want most of the time but when they see and feel it for the first time they know if it's the one.
What unusual niche knives have you made, or would you like to make?
I recently made a kebab knife for a chef friend who owns a catering service (a kebab is an elongated lamb meat paddy not to be confused with the vertical rotisserie Turkish doner kebab you are probably more familiar with in Europe). It's a 100 cm long, 15 cm wide knife with a very curved blade used for finely chopping meat. This was a flash project we did in a couple of days. It was a lot of fun and I can honestly say it's a very impressive knife. I'll happily make more of them or anything that sounds interesting but my focus is on improving what I do now.
Talk us through the steps of making a knife.
Roughly put it goes like that: once you have the design you cut out the shape of the steel. I always use laser or water jet and not a hand-held disc. Then comes the very important heat treating process. Afterwards you grind the blade (some people do that before the heat treating process), then you polish it. If you have a logo now is the time to mark the blade, then it's time for the assembly and fitting of the handle, sanding and polishing the handle, sharpening the blade, some cleanup and quality control, and it's good to go! Of course every design is a little different, but that's the basics.
How many people do you work with in production, and how did you choose them?
I used to manufacture the blades in the US and make the handles in Israel but this was very tricky and wasteful (and also contributed to my carbon footprint) and as I had to increase my volumes and have more control and presence throughout the process, I decided to manufacture everything in one place. Since Israel is not an option for various reasons, these days I work with a workshop in Santa Catarina, Portugal. After searching long and hard all over the world I decided to come to a place that has a very long and rich tradition of knife making, that gives me a chance to grow together and I even—dare I say it—help the local economy, where I would have full control of my product and where the people are knowledgeable and friendly, and the weather and food are good. So every time we are in production I get to live in the Portuguese countryside, which is nice and very different from the life I have in Tel Aviv. Every part of the process is done by the people who are best at doing it, so each knife goes through a few different hands. Altogether we have six or seven men and women working on FKK knives.
What do you most enjoy slicing?
Tomatoes are always tricky with a knife that's not sharp so when your knife is good and sharp it's a treat. But the thing I absolutely hate cutting is my fingers! It drives me mad but I still do it once in a while.