Lisa Perkovic meets the man belting out blades for some of the best kitchens around the world. John Hounslow-Robinson flicks dreadlocks from his wizened face and pulls out some knives – he’s armed and ready for business.
“Tet loves good Damascus, he must have 20 of my knives,’ says John, who hand-forges Damascus metal for some of the world’s best chefs. Today he’ll trade a knife for lunch at Tetsuya’s Sydney restaurant. Later he’ll pick up some French champagne as part of another knife-for-produce barter.
He shows me his wares in a Leichhardt café. The signature shimmer of Damascus steel, the swirl of carbon laced along a seriously sharp blade, draws the café chef to the table to gaze in wonder. Apparently that happens all the time.
John handles each knife with tenderness at odds with the razor sharp blade but the forge and knives have left their mark. He limps from a poker to the foot, his hands are ‘Damascus like’ layers of scars. The wounds heal with time.
Tetsuya and the café chef are some of the lucky ones. Most of the time chefs, foreign dignitaries, even famous Opera singers, travel 20 minutes from Hobart into the Tasmanian wilderness to see his blades of legendary strength and sharpness. The process takes three days for a single knife. Each knife is repeatedly battered and forged, drawn out and folded back, then battered again to layer steel upon layer of steel. This is the secret to the Damascus steel’s strength.
The Damascus forging technique originated in the middle east around 1100 AD and is still rarefied today around the world. John is one of the most accomplished craftsmen in Australia.
Like a true free spirit, he only works the metal when inspired. But if you happen to be in the area, you may just be lucky to see the artisan at work in his bush forge. You can find John in front of the searing heat, its brutal burn dulled by the cool air running through the wall-less hut. At night he whittles handles from fence posts, firewood and railway sleepers. Each knife is a work of art different to any other.
John gives visitors a tour of the forge shed before pulling out his knives. He doesn’t need to worry about the open-door policy.
Boning, pairing, oyster, kitchen and cleaver knives, the edges sharpened to a deadly point, start at $500. But the best way to buy is to trade, like Tetsuya.