Losing out on one opportunity doesn’t necessarily mean another isn’t in the offing.
Just ask Tony LaSeur.
The Fredericksburg custom knife maker didn’t make the cut in Garden & Gun’s annual Made in the South Awards, but the magazine’s editors didn’t forget him. When they decided to put together a two-page spread of Japanese vegetable knives called nakiris, they sent him an email asking if he would send them one.
Luckily, he just happened to have a nakiri on hand, and mailed it to Garden & Gun’s headquarters in Charleston.
It was one of dozens submitted by Southern knife makers, and the magazine’s staff took their time inspecting each one, said Phillip Rhodes, the executive managing editor. Blades and handles were looked at from every angle, and held to check for balance and heft.
Rhodes said that LaSeur’s stood out because of the darkness of its Damascus carbon-steel blade, which he hammers and grinds in a converted garage behind his house, and the stabilized 5,000-year-old bog oak used for the handle.
“That aspect really drew the eye,” Rhodes said, adding that the nakiri “had a nice weight.”
LaSeur’s knife was one of six selected for the February/March issue of the magazine. The other knife makers featured include Bloodroot Blades near Athens, Ga., Horn and Heel in Raleigh, N.C. and Phillips Forged in Knoxville, Tenn., along with two made by Japanese knife makers and sold at Coutelier NOLA, which specializes in hand-forged, professional cutlery. It has locations in Nashville and New Orleans.
“I was happy that I had a nakiri and super happy that they remembered me and thought of it,” LaSeur said. “I was honored to be on the page with the other knife makers that they picked. Some of them I knew, some of them I knew of—Bloodroot Blades in particular. They’re my heroes since I got into this.”
A graduate of the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, LaSeur made knives as a hobby for five years before turning professional in 2013. He primarily makes kitchen knives, and used to sell some of them at Fraser Wood Elements in downtown Fredericksburg. These days he attracts customers from around the world who find him through social media and his website, laseurknives.com.
“I would say a quarter of the people are cooks, half the people are home cooks but knife enthusiasts—people who actually collect kitchen knives or really love them—and the rest are people that want to get something for someone that’s special,” LaSeur said “Occasionally, you’ll have someone who is new to kitchen knives and is buying them for themselves.”
His work doesn’t come cheap. The nakiri featured in Garden & Gun has a $600 price tag. But his customers aren’t necessarily people with lots of expendable income, he said.
“It tends to be more people who really value something handmade, and really want to give something to somebody that’s going to work very well and last a long time,” LaSeur said. “That’s actually the core of my customers.”
He does get an occasional request for a Scottish sgian dubh, or a reproduction World War II Ka-Bar knife. The oddest request was for a recurved fighting knife made of Damascus steel.
Making each custom knife begins with a series of questions, usually handled through email. He’ll start by asking what type of knife they want, then start drilling down into the details.
“People will have a knife that they’ve used and liked that they’ll refer to,” LaSeur said. “It will be a back and forth. I’ll try to get a knife that they liked, try to get the usage, their preferences, how much they cook, how often. If you’re cooking a lot, a bigger knife is good. if you’re just chopping onions a couple nights a week, you don’t need as big a knife. But if you’re a big guy chopping onions a couple nights a week, a bigger knife will be more comfortable.”
Once he draws a pattern, LaSuer will either forge the steel or cut the shape from a bar before grinding it down to create just the right edge. Handles can be crafted from a variety of materials including spalted maple, a semi-rotten wood with dark veins running through it that are caused by fungus. He got some pieces from his in-laws’ property recently, and had it impregnated with acrylic.
“I keep trying to find some crib dam wood from the Rappahannock, but that stuff’s getting harder and harder to find,” he said.
Although LaSeur is one of only a handful of professionals with his specialty in Virginia, interest in custom knives—and custom kitchen knives in particular—is growing, he said. He attributes this to the proliferation of cooking shows on television and the History Channel’s “Forged in Fire,” which challenges bladesmiths to re-create some of history’s most iconic daggers, swords and other edged weapons.
Damasteel, which makes stainless-patterned Damascus steel for knife makers, now holds an annual Chef Invitational in Chicago that gives invited chefs and restaurant owners the chance to try and buy culinary knives made of its product. LaSeur got invited last year and will go back when it’s held in May.
“I haven’t been doing shows, so it was really cool to meet the big guys. It’s a small world, so I knew of all of them and admire all of them,” he said. “It was cool to get to meet them and talk shop, and an honor to be considered among them.”
LaSuer said that his knife designs have changed over the years. The spine has gotten thicker while the handle has gotten straighter. He also noticed that people tended to catch a towel on the heel of the knife when they were drying it.
“That angle is creeping more and more forward,” he said. “That’s what happens when you start thinking about one thing constantly.”
Yet for a man whose livelihood is making knives, there are only a few in his own kitchen.
“I have one my wife stole, and I keep ones that didn’t turn out right,” LaSeur said. “I use them as testers.”