A Cut Above: Adam Simha’s Knives
by Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely
Adam Simha repaired my friend's bicycle rack, loaded with luggage, when she was embarking on a trip and desperate to make her connection. Through the local hardware store Simha came to her rescue, quickly fixing the metalwork and refusing any payment. His act of gallantry seems a fitting introduction to this local artisan designer-philosopher. At his shop in North Cambridge, Adam Simha makes kitchen knives with bicycle grips. These plastic grooved handles are amusing and cheerful in their bright colors. They also work remarkably well as essential tools in the kitchen. When cutting or chopping, he explains, "you need to be able to change the grip slightly, so the whole movement from picking up to putting down" allows the cook to work efficiently.
Simha grew up in Cambridge, where his father was director of planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his mother, director of the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology. As a physics major at MIT, in addition to learning basic science and theory, he worked at local restaurants for hands-on practice. Legendary places such as Toscanini's Ice Cream, Michaela's, Salamander (where he won a prestigious baking contest) and others which, along the way, gave him a thorough apprenticeship. This kitchen time confirmed his "love of food and cooking," he says-his "love of creating things."
The experience also encouraged his thinking-through approach to how an object is used in the workplace or at home, its design fitting the motion and mechanics of the human body, in the science of ergonomics. "I just think of that awful oak chair we all had to sit in" at school, he says. In his business, called MKS Design (named for his wife), he at first made original furniture and homewares, pieces large and small: trivets, bookends, stools, tables and so on. If you go for an ice cream at Toscanini's today, you might sit in one of the sofas or chairs he designed for owner Gus Rancatore, who has helped his career at various points. Simha recently finished the seating for Simmons Hall at MIT. Right now he is working on furniture for the new MIT Media Lab.
Eleven years ago, Simha took a course in metalworking at Massachusetts College of Art. J. D. Smith "was one of those teachers who grabs you and pulls you in," Simha says with intensity. This master bladesmith got Simha thinking more and more about the making of knives, an artisanal craft with an ancient history and, at the higher levels, a very sophisticated and ever-changing technology. It's about "taking a hunk of steel," he says, and working from scratch at the forge with hammer and fire, following a sequence of steps from beginning to end. "Every hammer blow has a purpose," he says, revealing his approach as a philosopher as well as craftsman. From Smith he learned about the marriage of form and function in this complex process. "A knife needs to be efficient in the kitchen," Simha explains, "the least effort making the most impact. There's still a great deal of alchemy in it."
In the hardening process to make steel, you heat the metal alloy of iron, carbon and other elements to a very high temperature and cool it quickly, "to freeze the steel molecules in their hardest possible state," he says. "Tempering takes place slowly over several hours," he explains, "heating it to a lower temperature, allowing some of the molecules to revert back to a softer state. For a tool to have a very, very, very sharp edge, the price you pay is in brittleness."
After repeated trial and error, Simha comes up with a prototype for a knife, which he then sends out to be produced. He has been through four different fabricators: Sheffield, in England; Kelgin Knife Company, in tiny Sevierville, Tennessee (birthplace of Dolly Parton); Due Buoi, in Maniago, in northeastern Italy; and Lamson & Goodnow in Shelburne Falls, in Massachusetts, where water power allows it to be fully self-sustaining. He continues to work with Lamson & Goodnow, putting in a significant amount of time with them at every stage. He then does the assembly, putting on the handles at his shop. There Simha also makes knives from scratch, one-off custom-made knives. Contrary to the full set that well-known knife companies advertise and market, a professional chef needs only a few knives, he says. For that reason, it's worthwhile to get a very fine one or two or three that last well and suit your own hand perfectly. It's not just the blade, but the heft and feel of the handle in your grasp for your purpose. There's no right or wrong.
Simha shows me a variety of these beautiful knives with handles quite different from the bicycle grips. One, like a traditional Japanese knife, has a water buffalo horn handle. Others have exotic woods: macassar ebony and gaboon ebony handles catch my eye. The Micarta handle is linen and epoxy laminated under high pressure, so that it's nonporous. He encourages me to pick up each and feel it, to decide which I like best. It's simply a matter of preference, he assures me. The way Simha talks about preparing food and food itself, it's clear that he knows it through and through. Though long out of a professional kitchen, he is cooking now more than ever, he tells me. For him it's important to cook with his 10-year-old son, to pass along and share this love of the creative process. Gesturing with his hand, he shows me the correct and safe hand position for chopping and cutting, with fingers curled under, away from the sharp blade in the other hand. This is what his son calls "the claw"-the perfect way to capture a boy's imagination and draw him into the kitchen. Simha understands the movement from beginning to end and all the way through. Some of Adam Simha's designs are on his website, with prices.
Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely's articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. Her cookbook, A Feast of Fruits, was published by Macmillan in 1993. Her dictionary, The Chef 's Companion (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd edition), remains in print after 27 years. She was editor of The Culinary Times, published by the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe from 2000-2009. Beth can be reached at elizabethriely@ gmail.com.