Laurence Segal of Westside Sharpening & Cutlery Center has precisely the personality you need in a go-to knife guy. He's intensely opinionated about your blade choice (“Only stainless, never, ever carbon steel”) and satisfaction-guaranteed confident (“Yeah, some people think they can sharpen knives, but just wait until you try your knife out tonight”). He also harbors a few obsessive-compulsive knife storage issues. “You should have seen his reaction the time I put one of his [handmade] knives in the kitchen sink,” jokes his wife, Cecelia Diaz. “There was no water in the sink, even!”
Hey, if we owned a knife half as stunning as the hybrid Inuit Eskimo-Chinese knives (!) Segal designs and makes by hand at his tiny alley-side shop in Santa Monica, we'd probably be just as uptight about proper knife handling.
“I'm brutally honest, sorry, and a bit of a knife snob,” shrugs Segal after he tells a customer that the entry-level Henckels knives he brought in to sharpen really aren't all that great (the customer asked). “But a sharp knife, even a bad one, is always better than a dull knife, right?”
The quality of many commercial knives is part of the reason Segal began making his own Inuit-Chinese cleaver version, which he calls “Rhino Chop” knives, in his garage more than fifteen years ago.
“Not that kind of cleaver,” says Segal, pulling out a large Chinese vegetable cleaver. “Not the kind you hack through bone. These Chinese cleavers are used like Western chef's knives to cut just about everything else in daily cooking. They have a more delicate blade.”
Segal prefers Chinese knives to most Western knives, but traditional Eskimo knife innovations are what inspired him to create a new knife design. “They're half-circles, originally made out of walrus ivory, so you slice working in a circle with the side of your hand, not on top like with Western knives,” he says of the semi-circle Ulu knives that Eskimo women have long used to filet fish.
“It's shaped like this,” he says, patting his stomach and smiling. “That same curvature, like my belly, the knife follows that. It facilitates the perfect movement. Imagine slicing a whole salmon, you grab it under the gills, slice here with this sideways movement. A pretty great idea.”
Segel says he combined the Ulu knife with a Chinese cleaver to “lighten up the knife” and so it slices produce and chops meat more efficiently (a handle was also essential for our Western upright chopping sensibilities). Some of his Rhino knives have holes running parallel to the blade's edge to help keep food from sticking to the knife and further reduce the weight of the blade; others have holes punched in a butterfly pattern along the spine of the blade for cooks who prefer to hold their blade “like Europeans do,” says Segal, holding the knife by both the blade and handle (the holes allow for a firmer grasp).
“This handle is Sycamore wood, which is almost impervious to water,” he saysl, running his finger along a quite stunning knife handle with a rhinoceros emblem embedded in the wood. He uses salvaged wood to carve custom-fitted handles and then coats them in a water-proof finish.
They're expensive, yes (starting at $375). But if you properly care for your knife over the years, Segal says that “this is the kind of knife you can pass on to your grandkids.” Well, presuming you don't leave it in the kitchen sink.
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