When Telly Justice posted the knives at her new restaurant on Instagram, she didn’t expect such a big response. Her story showed a drawer of red-handled knives from Made In, in individual covers, and she explained “one of the things that has become normalized in our industry that I absolutely DESPISE is the expectation that line cooks ought to own/purchase their own kitchen tools in order to be a functional worker in high-level kitchens.” She outlined that at her restaurant HAGS, which aims to be queer and equitable and has things like pay-what-you-want nights and a policy where servers are allowed to sit down, they are providing knives and other tools to staff. “I’ve worked in places where you’re expected to invest a good couple hundred bucks just to start working,” she posted. “Disgusting imho.”
Suddenly, she found herself messaging with dozens of people about the policy, and trying to remind others that HAGS wasn’t the first place to dream up the practice of ensuring that workers have the tools they need to do their jobs. “But it showcases how this seemingly innocuous, no-brainer, labor field practice has become so avant-garde in cooking that we’ve forgotten these are regular workers that pay rent, who have living expenses, and can’t just shell out $1,000 every time they start a new job,” she says.
There is much romance around the idea of a chef and their knife. It is the essential tool, the one every chef seemingly gets a tattoo of. Knives are the things they are asked to pack up when they lose Top Chef. Of course, any industry is going to produce gearheads, and it makes sense that chefs would start to get into the tools they were using every day. “It’s a very personal expression of not only your dedication to what you are doing, but also to your own personal preferences,” says David Collier, a pastry chef who has begun forging his own knives. Having your own knife means having something suited to your height and hand shape, and something over which you have control of quality. It’s an issue of comfort and precision. For some, using a knife provided by the restaurant would be like playing in an orchestra and using the house violin.
Knives are also expensive, especially on a line cook’s wages. The expectation in fine dining has been that cooks provide their own knives, which for many turns into a high barrier to entry. But as many in the restaurant industry attempt to build a more equitable culture, will there be room for bringing your own $500 tool?
The practice of providing house knives is more common outside of the fine dining world. “I know lots of cooks in larger hotels, larger operations, and there’s just shop knives that belong to the kitchen,” says Collier. “And they’re obviously horrible most of the time because there’s no sense of ownership.” Showing up to work and having to execute a mirepoix with a chipped, dull knife is obviously frustrating, so those who wanted to and could afford it began to bring in their own tools. According to Matthew Rudofker, head of operations and culinary at Local Kitchens, “[in] most of the kitchens I worked in when I was a cook and chef, the team members preferred to use their own tools,” even when the restaurant provided knives.
“It seems like the very custom, personalized chef’s knives have increased in popularity and usage just during the last 10 or 15 years,” says Collier, who nods to the fact that “more and more people are wanting to cook at a really dedicated, high level.” But knives have also quickly turned into a way for chefs to judge one another. While working at 1789 in Georgetown, Collier says, “you could tell a difference from the line cooks to the sous chefs; the sous chefs would all come in and they all had their own little roll [of knives].” Having your own knives denoted seriousness and dedication.
This, Justice says, sets up a class divide that she hopes to chip away at. “There are vast cultural differences, kitchen to kitchen, but I think there’s a self-selecting and gatekeeping quality to this,” she says. Having your own knives has become expected in fine dining spaces, which means if you can’t afford them, you aren’t considered dedicated enough for fine dining jobs, and the cycle goes around and around. Providing knives is a way to open up the industry, especially for workers of marginalized backgrounds. “It really stems from a need to encourage and entice queer food workers to come work with us,” she says. “It’s like anything else: You can’t invite people from a certain intersection without first being prepared to make the environment supportive of them.”
Rudofker, who provides knives to workers at Local Kitchens, says that even if cooks prefer to bring their own knives, restaurants should be supplying them. “That burden should not be on the team member to be transporting knives between work and home,” he says. It can be a safety issue; he mentions a time when he was stopped by the police on his way home, and almost charged with carrying a concealed weapon. But also, even if you are a knife obsessive who wants to spend all your disposable income on custom-made tools, that should be your choice, not a requirement.
Fine dining culture isn’t going to change overnight, and Collier insists that getting a good knife needn’t be inaccessible. There are plenty of people who make “really awesome blades that are maybe a little less well-known, that definitely are affordable,” he says. Currently, he’s working on a few custom orders where he hasn’t asked for a deposit, and where customers are paying in installments. “We’ll just do 30 bucks a month until it’s done. That’s cool, ’cause we’ve all been there.” But according to Rudofker, whether it’s a knife provided by the restaurant or one you provide yourself, cost isn’t as important as maintenance. “You can purchase a $10 knife and it will allow you to execute your job provided it is properly maintained,” he says.
Justice says at first, those who came to HAGS from a fine dining background and had their own knives insisted they’d continue to use them. But now, “I’ve yet to see one person bring in their tools from home, which is such a sign of this system working.” Even if cooks do use their own knives, Justice hopes that by providing good tools, restaurants can help them be more discerning about when to bring them out. “If you’re making vegetable stock and you need to just cut an onion in half, you shouldn’t have to slide your $700 Gyuto out of your leather knife roll that has your name embossed in it,” she says. “I see the staff reflecting on what requires and does not require their home tools, in real time. It’s really cool to see, because it showcases very visually how this gatekeeper mentality has really been ingrained into us as cooks.” Obsession is great. But it shouldn’t come at the expense of equity.
Marylu E. Herrera is a Chicago-based collage artist.