When chef Maria Mazon of Boca Tacos traveled to New York to film her episode of Chopped, she brought one very important item that was specially made for her here in Tucson. It was a handcrafted chef knife, one that she describes as "flawless."
Chef Gary Hickey of Charro Steak came across a knife created by the same craftsman during a particularly busy night during the monsoon season. The power went out as he was cutting prime slabs of beef, but the knife was so precise and so sturdy that he only needed minimal light to finish his task. Since then, he has acquired more sharpened steel by the same specialist, seeing as the first one was just a loaner.
Local butcher Ben Forbes is in the process of replacing his collection of knives with new blades by this same Tucsonan, mainly because they stay sharp and move easily around bone.
Who is the person handcrafting these acclaimed knives? They certainly aren't cheap, but real chefs look at them as an investment and currently there is up to a four-year wait to call one your own.
His name is Don Nguyen.
Nguyen is only 27 years old but has already made a name for himself in the arena of professional hand-made chef knife fabrication. In a garage space he shares with a gutted Jaguar sports car (a side project in progress), Nguyen creates his own line of kitchen blades—beautiful works of cutting-edge art that are growing in popularity.
"When I started making knives about seven years ago, there really wasn't anyone out there making individual, per order chef's knives," Nguyen says. "A few guys here in the U.S. and maybe Australia, but that's about it. With the evolving culinary scene there are more coming up, but it is still a very small, very niche market."
Eight years ago, Nguyen was a college student without any real focus or passion. He was majoring in physics, but his classes included biology, music and even chiropractic studies. It took a chance meeting with a sub-par utility knife to shift the gears and allow Nguyen to go full throttle with his chosen career path.
"I love to cook, and I was rooming with this guy that let me live rent free as long as I cooked," Nguyen says. "One night, I'm making this yellow curry dish that required a lot of onions, which meant a lot of cutting. The only knife he had was this sad little dull serrated knife. That thing made me cry. Right then and there, I learned how to sharpen knives."
Internet sharpening tutorials segued into actual knife-making training. Before long, Nguyen had found the one thing he knew he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
"The first knife I made took me about 200 hours to create and I ended up selling it for like $180," says Nguyen. "I wound up losing money on that one. The guy liked it so much that he passed it around and then, by word of mouth, I started getting orders coming in."
Just a short time after taking online classes for a year and studying blacksmithing at Pima College West, Nguyen was sculpting knives for chefs all over, including the above-mentioned Tucson talent, and getting more and more attention from his designs and skills. Recently he appeared on the cover of Blade magazine, one of the largest specialty knife publications in the world.
Nguyen starts with high-carbon steel that's shipped from New Jersey.
"Nothing sharpens like high carbon steel," he says. "Plus, people love the old school look of the knife when its rendered.
"For the grip, I just eyeball the customer's hand and take it from there, working it into a sort of hexagon pattern. The balance of the blade also depends on the preference of the patron; some like front balance, some back, some want a heavy knife while others prefer light. Since a chef knife starts at close to a thousand dollars, the client is going to get the knife of their dreams basically."
Nguyen has gotten so busy that he had to employ a full-time apprentice. He's looking into starting a more affordable line of chef's knives. For now, he is just working on filling in all of those back orders. Who knows? In the next few years, you can call a Don Nguyen knife your very own.