Chelsea Miller and her passion for sharp blades
BY ANJA FAHS
Many people find the idea of leading an extremely multifaceted life exciting. The accountant who turns into an expert on Argentinian tango as soon as the sun sets, or the primary school teacher who teaches fly fishing hip-deep in a river at the weekend. These parts of our lives which include a rational and a creative side are unbelievably fascinating. Especially, when they reach extremes.
Chelsea Miller knows this kind of life well. She grew up in Peacham, located in rural Vermont in the USA and has lived in New York City – where she is pursuing a career as an actress for television and theatre – for over ten years. Although she grew up in a down-to-earth household (her father is a blacksmith and carpenter), manual work never seemed as attractive to her as acting. Until a promising visit home to New England a few years ago, where her brother showed her how he makes knives. Chelsea also wanted to learn how to do this to craft presents for friends. After the third attempt she was hooked – she had found her second calling in life.
Today, Chelsea still works as an actress. But when she is not standing in front of the camera she can be found in her small atelier in Brooklyn where she very successfully produces beautiful knives which are valued by celebrity chefs and are sold via her online shop. She tells us what fascinates her about metal and why a knife is much more than just a tool.
Can you remember your first knife? Who gave it to you?
Chelsea Miller: Since I was a small child, every year on my birthday my father has given me a knife, usually a Swiss Army knife. I would always be very excited about the latest edition, some of them had tiny scissors, tweezers, a tooth pick, magnifying glass, etc…
Do you accidentally cut yourself during your work now and then?
C. M.: I often cut my fingers while using the sanding belt. It turns very quickly and often my fingers are in the way. Also while sharpening I forget how easily the blade will go through flesh.
Where does your passion for knives come from?
C. M.: My passion is less about knives and more about combining utility with beauty. I love the simple functionality of knives and I’ve always had an interest in design, especially in the kitchen.
Who taught you the blacksmith’s craftsmanship and how to make knives?
C. M.: I learned how to bend metal and work with wood at a young age with my father, he is a blacksmith and carpenter. When I began to be more and more interested in knife making I read many books and studied with a knife maker in Vermont.
What defines a good knive?
C. M.: In my opinion a good knife is subjective. Many people like different knives for different reasons. Tradition, function, craftsmanship, price, quality and so on. My favorite knives are antique knives. I have a collection from Solingen, Germany. I like my knives for their multi-purpose qualities and also their visual aesthetic.
When does a knife sit comfortably in the hand so that you can cut well with it?
C. M.: That is also something personal. Many chefs I know prefer a small light knife for speed and percussion but they keep a collection of handmade knives like mine for more slowed down, at home occasions for example.
What should be avoided if you want to buy a new knife?
C. M.: I would suggest avoiding large production knives. Stick to handmade or vintage knives. A lot of low quality inexpensive knives don’t last longer than a few months and are not only inefficient but not a pleasure to use. Find something that you can be proud to own and use it with respect and admiration.
How many knives does it make sense to use in the kitchen?
C. M.: I use about three knives in the kitchen, a pairing knife, a bread knife and a chef knife. But when it comes to entertaining I like to pull out my cheese knives, steak knives, butter knives, and lay them all out to be handled by everyone. I love to have many platters of cheese, meats, fruit, bread and everyone takes what they like. Using our hands is part of the dinner party experience.
Buying knives can quickly cost a fortune. What makes knives so expensive?
C. M.: Prices vary depending on where they are made, in what style they are made and generally any knife made by hand will be more expensive than machine made. The closer attention you pay to where things come from and how they’re made, the easier it is to understand why things cost what they do.
Your knives are used by famous chefs, for example at the multi-Michelin-starred restaurant ‘Eleven Madison Park’ in Manhattan. What knives have you created for the restaurant?
C. M.: I worked with Eleven Madison to create a set of cheese knives for a table side cheese service. One long knife for slicing and two serving pieces.
Who would you like to see working with your knives? Is there a personality?
C. M.: I love most to see people using my knives in their homes and taking the time to think about where their knife comes from and the energy it takes to create a work of art like a knife, and finally to feel that energy extended into their lives and the food they choose to prepare for themselves, their friends and family.
Is there a particular knife which you are very proud of?
C. M.: I’m proud of all of my knives, I feel fulfilled when I know I’m committed to completing each and every piece with its own special qualities.
What kind of knife would you like to make one day? What would be a real challenge for you?
C. M.: I’d like to pass this ability on to others who might work with me to make more of my knives available.
What’s your favorite material for the knife handles?
C. M.: My favorite is local hardwood. Spalted maple is always surprising, I never know what patterns I will find until I begin working with it.
What is the most difficult part of forging a knife?
C. M.: It is very dangerous work and it is important to be in a calm and alert state of mind, if I am tired or stressed I can be easily injured. I have tremendous respect for the tools and their power, and I try not to overwork them or myself.
What inspires you, where do your ideas come from?
C. M.: My inspiration comes from change and the revolution of myself in this lifetime. I try to bring my values into my designing process, I am always growing and I express this through coming to work every day open to where the work will take me.
You now live in New York City, do you have your blacksmith in the City? Or where do you make your knives?
C. M.: I have a small atelier near my apartment in Brooklyn where I make my knives. There is a motorcycle shop in front then a ceramic studio, and my knife shop is in the back.
If you were stranded on a deserted island and you could only take one knife with you – which would you take?
C. M.: I would bring the Microplane cheese knife. You can cut, spread, grate and also, it‘s just so pretty to look at and always inspires me to see everything in a new way and find new meaning in everything.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue Q4 2015. Picture credit © Raf Stahelin