Inside the Secret London Blacksmiths Crafting Knives for Michelin-Starred Restaurants
Blenheim Forge started life as a couple of guys messing around with steel, but quickly became more than a hobby. “We did the odd machete or sword, but it was always about kitchen knives," says co-founder Jon Warshawsky.
Walking into Blenheim Forge, located underneath a railway arch in South London, is a bit like entering Aladdin's cave. What at first glance appears to be a heap of shrapnel, torturous looking metal contraptions, and flying sparks, is actually much more. Look a little closer and you'll spot carefully crafted woodwork, bespoke machinery, and—the reason for my visit—a glass-fronted cabinet full of glittering knives.
Everything here has a place and purpose (except, I find out later, much to my dismay, the boat strapped to the ceiling.)
"We've been making knives for around three and a half years now, but we started just messing around in the garden," says James Ross-Harris, co-founder of Blenheim Forge, along with Jon Warshawsky and Richard Warner.
As you do.
As Ross-Harris shows me the bare bones of what will become one of their Japanese-style knives, a metal block comprising several layers of welded steel, he assures me that he wasn't starting completely from scratch.
"I'd been doing metalwork for a couple of years, but Jon was doing a philosophy PhD and Rich was digging holes in Australia," he explains, adding that Warner joined the company later. "We made a knife once as an experiment and it went quite well. But the next time we tried it, it was a disaster. That failure repeated for about six months as we tried to get back to the original success."
He adds: "I think if it hadn't been a success the first time, we would have just sacked it off."
So, was it always about knives for chefs and cooks?
Warshawsky casually replies: "We did the odd sword or machete [cue my raised eyebrows] but it was always kitchen knives. When we started, how we made and developed our knives was based on people's feedback: how comfortable it was to hold, whether it needed to be thinner or wider in places."
Ross-Harris adds: "There are some old pieces that are interesting to look back on and think, 'Why did I do it like that?' Every aspect has changed since we started making them: the design, profiles, balance, materials, the finish."
Now, though, the guys have their technique down and their tools of the culinary trade are highly sought after by chefs and home cooks alike. Blenheim Forge knives can be found everywhere from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's knife block to the kitchens of Michelin-starred Fera at Claridge's, and East London butcher-cum-restaurant Hill and Szrok.
Time for the grand tour. Alice in Wonderland-style, I crouch down to stoop through a small door within a bigger door that leads to the forge's main workshop. The space is filled with sanding machines for finishing wooden handles, walls lined with hammers, and knives in different stages of production. I also spot two trays of tools labelled "Fucked" and "Not Fucked."
Ross-Harris shows me how they sharpen the blade edge of each knife on one of the sanding belts.
"We use Japanese steel and forge techniques," he explains. "Performance-wise, it gives the best results. The steel, the materials, and the way we use the materials gives a finer blade. Before we were even making knives, we were trying to laminate metals together, which is a Japanese technique. It's kind of a natural progression to then make a Japanese-style knife."
Before finishing on the belt, the blades are sharpened on a grinder, which looks like a rotating stone and sprays water across the workshop—the reason for the huge sheet of tarpaulin hanging on the wall opposite suddenly becoming apparent.
"There would have been loads of these [grinders] around in places like Sheffield about 50 years ago, but now you don't really get them," says Ross-Harris. "So we just built one."
Warshawsky asks if want to light one of the two forges and I nervously agree, taking a gas clicker lighter. As I lean forward to press the button, he quickly pulls me back.
"Wait, stand to the side. Don't stand in front of it when you're lighting it otherwise you'll be in the path of the flame."
Forge lit and my eyebrows still intact, I ask Ross-Harris how the forge works with chefs when crafting knives.
"Sometimes they'll say, 'I've got a job coming up where I've got to slice loads of salmon' or something, and then we'll make a blade that's good at slicing salmon," he says. "It helps to have a knowledge of cooking to a degree. But there's a knowledge of cooking and then there's knowledge of how a chef wants to slice salmon. It's different."
Warshawsky adds dryly: "Some people want inscriptions or engravings. 'Happy anniversary,' you know. People want a lot of puns with knives, like, 'Staying on the cutting edge' or 'Stay sharp.'"
Are their clientele usually chefs or people of the novelty knife persuasion?
Ross-Harris laughs: "Well, there are a lot more middle-aged women who need presents for their husbands than there are chefs."
Before I leave, I wonder if the team ever feel protective over their knives once they've left the forge?
Ross-Harris laughs again: "I encourage people to bring their knives back to have them sharpened, not just to help them out but so I can see what the blades look like and how they've been treated."
He continues: "These are quite fragile knives but they'll last forever if you look after them. But if you put it in the dishwasher or something … Most of the time, they're very well looked-after. Sometimes too well looked after. It's like come on, use them."
The goggles and ear defenders are back on as I say goodbye to Blenheim Forge. The pulse of the now-searing hot forge gets quieter and quieter and I make my way back to Peckham High Street. Standing on the train platform, I look around and wonder whether anyone has any idea of the magic going on a little way down the tracks.
All photos by Liz Seabrook.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in October 2016.