An obsessed chef's quest to acquire the world's rare knives

British chef Allegra McEvedy's approach to life and food seems to be that she's primed for the next adventure. Her latest book, Bought, Borrowed and Stolen: Recipes and Knives from a Travelling Chef, is a scrapbook of a restless, curious cook who's roamed every continent collecting dishes, stories and knives. (Read an excerpt from her book here.)

Lynne Rossetto KasperYou love to roam. Where did this come from?

Allegra McEvedy: I think it started with my father, who was a historian; he took us all over the world when we were growing up. Family holidays to me were all about clambering over ruins in the Middle East and looking at cathedrals and all these sorts of amazing cultural things from when I was a tiny, tiny girl. I just thought that's what holidays were. Although I did go on strike once or twice as a teenager, I think it instilled something in me about when we do have time off from our work, it's nice to go and learn and absorb some culture instead of just lying on a beach and getting a tan.

Ginger and Garlic Fried Fish
McEvedy's recipe for Malawian Ginger and Garlic Fried Fish.

LRK: The theme of this book is built around your collecting knives all over the world. But your knives are not everyday knives. It's not like you're out there finding another paring knife or another chef's knife. What are some of your favorites?

AM: I am obsessed with my knives. They all have to have character, soul and a little bit of something special from the country that I got them in. There are two that come to mind straightaway. One is my Malawian tea-tending knife (pictured, at top), which is a thing of incredible beauty and character. It's a straight shaft of about 15 inches and then a curve around the end. The full 180-degree curve is beautiful and used for taking the very top leaves off a tea plant.

LRK: It almost looks like the knife has a rectangular wooden handle, and it looks like a long "J." The blade is a long "J" with a point at the end.

AM: That's a very good way of describing it. I'm actually holding the knife as I speak, so I'm looking at it trying to put it in words, but you've done it very elegantly. 

I got that at a Malawian tea plantation. This guy just knew I was admiring it and he left it for me outside my bedroom door the next morning when we were flying off. So it was also a very kind thing to do because Malawi is an incredibly poor country. This guy, who was one of the farmers on this cooperative, did something so generous by giving me his knife. I would never have dared ask for it. 

The other one that jumps to mind is my unagisaki, as I call it, which is a Japanese knife. 

LRK: Looking at it in the book, this knife is a flat piece of metal. It's a long, rectangular piece of metal with an angled end that's the blade. You know what it looks like? It looks like a box cutter that they didn't put a handle on. What is this thing for?

AM: It's for doing a very specific filleting job with an eel. You know how specific the Japanese are? It's one thing for a certain job and another for another and it has to be just so. It came from this amazing knife shop in Kyoto that's been making knives for the emperor's family and kitchens for over 500 years, so the shop is steeped in history. I was like a kid in a toy shop; I was a bit sweaty and overexcited in there. But I came away with this one because I've never, ever seen a knife like it. It's got no rivets, no handle. It's just one piece of steel, it's just beautiful and it's so sharp. It's very elegant, very brutal and very effective.

Allegra McEvedy
Allegra McEvedy

LRK: What was the hardest knife to get?

AM: Probably my Hong Kong chopper. I traveled around China and Hong Kong for about 3 1/2 weeks and I kept looking at knives. I didn't see anything that I really couldn't have gotten back in London. Then, on the last day, we were in the big market -- the food market in Kowloon -- and there's one floor for fruit and vegetables, one floor for meat and one floor for fish. And on the meat floor, the butchers' floor, there's probably 100 stalls, but all of these guys were using the same knife. It came in three different sizes, but it was exactly the same knife. I was trying to say to them that I'm a chef -- and I'd been taught the word for chef -- and offering some money and trying to get the knives. They all laughed at me and pointed and I was not getting anywhere. Then I went back to the hotel, and we were literally flying out the next morning, and I just said to the guy in the kitchen, "Can you possibly tell me where I can get these? Everyone's got them. They must be available somewhere." And he told me the street.

It was literally monsooning down outside, and we just fought our way through. This long street seemed to go on forever, and then just as I was about to give up, I saw this one shop with enormous steamer baskets hanging outside. I was like, "If that's not it, we're going home." I went inside and showed her a picture that I'd taken on my phone of this knife. She went back and she pulled one out. She said, "Last one. Last one." It was the biggest of the three; it's enormous. I don't know how I got it back through customs, but I love it so much and it's very, very impressive.

[Ed. note: You can read an excerpt from McEvedy's book about the experience of finding the Hong Kong chopper and see a photo here.]

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