The art of creating ergonomic knives for chefs with Alexander O’Neill
Gorse Knives was an Instagram discovery. I was immediately struck by the beauty and elegance of this truly essential piece of kitchen equipment, and had to know more. It turns out the man who makes them, Alexander O’Neill, trained as a jeweller and silversmith before turning to knives, so it’s hardly surprising that they should be so stunning to look at. Emerging from an unlikely concrete bunker of a workshop in Kennington, Alexander told me all about them.
SD: Starting in jewellery, making knives seems rather off piste. How did you come to that idea?
AO: My jewellery degree covered lots of different projects and I tended towards producing art jewellery rather than focusing on straight goldsmithing. Since many of my designs didn’t use standard fittings, I had to make everything myself. Steel was easy and relatively cheap to get so I worked in that. I also did a lot of engraving and started making my own engraving tools. I’m an enthusiastic if not an amazing chef, so the idea came quite naturally to start making my own knives. I enjoyed blacksmithing, spreading the metal, heating it up and hammering it out. It’s an opportunity to work very closely with the metal itself. For knives I start by hammering them out and then will grind them to a very sharp edge with increasingly fine grits, followed by a whetstone and then finally a barber’s stop. A barber’s stop is a piece of leather which is run along the blade to realign the edge on the microscopic level producing a razor-like finish. Sometimes you see people running knives backwards across their jeans for a similar effect.
SD: Has it helped that you trained in jewellery first?
AO: Definitely! So much of jewellery training is being taught to make something work functionally alongside looking beautiful. Jewellery has to fit well, feel comfortable and serve its purpose. Similarly a knife has to be crafted to fit your hand so that it feels like an extension of your arm rather than a simple tool you hold. It also has to work well so that chefs can cut quickly and cleanly. Cutting with a really good knife should be a fluid feeling.
The other advantage of my jewellery training was the exposure it gave me to different materials, materials not typically used in knife making. While I was studying at the Cass University, the Horners Guild ran a competition encouraging students to make pieces using buffalo horn. Buffalo horn is used for Japanese knives, but not normally for European knives and my knives have European handles. The difference is that Japanese handles use less steel. The steel from the blade extends only a small distance into the handle, whereas European knives have the steel extending the full length of the handle. It gives the knife more weight and I think a better feel. I do use Japanese blades, though, as they have a steep point as opposed to a curved one like European blades. The steep point makes them easier to sharpen.
SD: Aside from buffalo horn, what materials do you use and why?
AO: I only use buffalo horn at the top near the blade. The rest of the handle is made with woods like walnut, which goes very dark after treating, or San Paolo wood, which has oranges, greens and blues running through it in beautiful peacock-like swirls. The San Paolo wood also smells great while I’m making it. I then use Danish finishing oil to make the handles harder and waterproof. None of my materials are synthetic. I look for quality materials that are hard-wearing as well as beautiful. The buffalo horn was the heavy duty plastic of its day. It really takes a lot. I choose the woods I work with because they take a higher polish to become almost glassy.
For the blade I use either Sheffield Steel, which is a high carbon tool steel still made in Sheffield, or Hitachi blue paper steel, which is a beautifully fine steel from Japan. It’s made by laminating high carbon steel between two sheets of iron. If you etch the material it gives you a swirly, smokey colour all along the high carbon steel edge. You don’t get any effect from etching Sheffield Steel, but it does take a very sharp edge and is a slightly cheaper alternative to the Hitachi steel, which really does give the best and most beautiful edge.
You need the higher carbon steel in order to be able to harden the knife by quenching so that it won’t bend and it will retain it’s edge. That’s where the stainless steel knives fall down.
“You need the higher carbon steel in order to be able to harden the knife by quenching so that it won’t bend and it will retain it’s edge. That’s where the stainless steel knives fall down.”
SD: It would be terrible for any of these knives to get damaged. How should you look after them and keep them in good nick?
AO: It’s important to dry them after use and never put them through the dishwasher or leave them in boiling water. Boiling water is a disaster for knives like these! If you notice them getting dark or developing rust, you can put any food safe oil onto the blades. I also provide handle polish to keep the handles well buffed. This is a mixture of beeswax, orange oil and vitamin E. For sharpening, I would recommend a Japanese Whetstone rather than a chef’s steel. All my knives are sharpened with a Japanese Whetstone before they leave the workshop and you won’t achieve the same sharpness with a chef’s steel and it’s too abrasive for a high carbon knife. Japanese Whetstones are also very cheap. You can buy them on Amazon for a tenner!
SD: You mention on your website that as “as a patina develops, its identity will begin to show, crafted by your choice of ingredients.” That sounds fascinating! What can you tell from the patina of a knife?
AO: Well, acidic fruits and vegetables give a darker patina, cooked meats give a more bluish colour and high cellulose vegetables like onions, leeks and garlic produce yellowish colours.
SD: Do you produce a whole range of different knives for different purposes or focus on a standard few?
AO: I’ll make any style, but mostly the more unusual knives I’ll do as bespoke orders. They are typically the same price as my other knives (unless you’re interested in a hatchet or something!), but there’s just less demand for them. Recently I’ve been working on a shorter cook’s knife for The Corner House in Hackney and also a filleting knife for another chef.
SD: What kinds of people buy your knives and what do they do with them?
AO: Mostly my knives are used in the home rather than in restaurants, but some chefs will take their hand-made knives into work if the kitchen isn’t so crazy that they can be sure it won’t get mistreated. They are beautiful to look at as well as work with, so they tend to be in places where people can enjoy them. A private chef bought a knife recently and he takes it with him on the job, because working in people’s kitchens you’re very much on show and the knife is all part of the experience. It’s possible that with the trend for open kitchens, more chefs will look to invest in hand-made knives.
SD: What is the difference to using a standard stainless steel knife?
AO: They are just so much sharper! High carbon steel knives can be given a much sharper edge to start with and they retain that edge for longer. Stainless steel knives have chromium added to them to make them stain resistant, but that also softens the edge of the blade. My designs are also better balanced and more ergonomically pleasing. They really do feel like an extension of your arm. That’s probably my jewellery training coming out. They are designed to fit the body.
“My designs are also better balanced and more ergonomically pleasing. They really do feel like an extension of your arm.”
SD: Do you think that your knives could help reduce repetitive strain injury for chefs?
AO: Absolutely! I know from my own experience that having well-balanced tools really helps. I take great care in choosing my tools and if I can’t find a tool good enough, I make them myself, which is how the whole thing started in the first place.
SD: Which chef do you most admire for knife skills?
AO: Oh I don’t know! They all seem to have it effortlessly down with ninja-like dexterity.
SD: Is there a recipe you particularly enjoy making with your knives?
Hmm…I think it would be orecchiette with buttermilk, peas and pistachios. Having a really sharp knife makes thinly slicing the leeks lengthwise a real joy!
Recipe for orecchiette with buttermilk, peas and pistachios
- ¼ cup pistachios
- 340g orecchiette
- kosher salt
- 340g peas (such as shelled fresh or frozen English and/or halved sugar snaps)
- 3 tbsp. unsalted butter
- 2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- 2 medium leeks, white and pale green parts only, cut in half lengthwise, thinly sliced
- 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- ½ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 small bunch mint, divided
- ¾ cup buttermilk
- 85 grams Parmesan, finely grated, plus more for serving
- freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
- Preheat oven to 350°.
- Toast pistachios on a rimmed baking sheet until golden brown, 5–8 minutes, then crush.
- Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water 6 minutes, then add peas and cook until pasta is al dente.
- Meanwhile, heat butter and 2 Tbsp olive oil in a medium heavy pot over medium.
- Cook leeks, garlic, red pepper flakes, and a couple of mint sprigs, until leeks are soft but not browned, season with salt.
- Add buttermilk and bring to a simmer (do not over heat the butter milk as it will curdle).
- Pluck out mint and discard.
- Then transfer pasta and peas to leek mixture.
- Add your preferred amount of Parmesan.
- Cook, stirring vigorously and adding a little pasta water if needed, until sauce is creamy and coats pasta.
- Season with salt and pepper.
- Remove from heat and add the lemon juice.
- Pull the leaves from remaining mint sprigs, tear into pasta, and toss.
- Top with pistachios and Parmesan and drizzle with oil.