With years of practice and the help of mentors, classically trained chef turned knifemaker Nicholas “Nic” Nichols is perfecting the art of making kitchen cutlery.
For chefs, the perfect knife isn’t just a kitchen tool they randomly pull from the block to get the job done, but a carefully selected, mission-critical instrument that cuts exactly where they want it to. It’s an extension of their arm and offers consistent quality every time. Classically trained chef Nicholas Nichols knows this well. Kitchen cutlery is his passion. So much so that he learned to forge his own, which gave him a chance to compete on the History channel’s Forged in Fire competition series.
A Leland native and resident, Nichols graduated from Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte in 2006 with a degree in culinary arts and began a career as a chef, though he had been cooking long before that. His inspiration for cooking came not only from both of his grandmothers’ passion for food, but also from The Food Network. “That channel changed cooking for me,” he says. “I watched it all the time.” His favorite chefs on the channel, whom he credits as influencers, were Emeril Lagasse and the late Anthony Bourdain.
Though career-wise Nichols has moved from the kitchen to selling food to restaurants, he is still a chef at heart and very much attached to his own set of knives when he cooks at home. Five years ago he first became interested in making his own knives after an exercise in genealogy.
“I found out that my great-great-great grandfather was a blacksmith in Columbus County, and it led me down this crazy path to learn how to do ornamental metal work,” Nichols says.
Before he could learn how to make kitchen knives — “they’re one of the hardest knives for beginners to forge” — he first had to hone his skills on everyday carry knives. He found a mentor in Hampstead who would teach him just that.
While he worked on his ornamental craft, Nichols began to search for blacksmith equipment, which he discovered was hard to come by. When he did find equipment, if it wasn’t what he needed, he would sell it to other smiths. One day he sold and delivered a leg vice to a gentleman who was forging knives out of railroad spikes.
“He encouraged me to try it. I did, and I found myself going back to there the following week, and the week after that, and the next several weeks,” Nichols says. “It morphed into a quest, and it was this thing I had to find out more about.”
That year Nichols made railroad spike knives for Christmas gifts, and that experience has evolved into where he is today.
The processes between everyday carry knives and kitchen knives are vastly different. Everyday carry knives are very rustic and not refined so you let the material dictate the knife. Kitchen knives on the other hand are made from either carbon steel or stainless steel. Nichols equates the differences in the two types of steel with this analogy: “A stainless-steel blade is like having a new 2020 Corvette that you just need to change the oil and put gas in it, and you can drive it every day. Carbon steel is like a ’60s or ’70s muscle car; it’s fun to drive, but it takes some maintenance.”
The nuances of craftsmanship that Nichols has learned over the past several years propelled him to apply to appear on Forged in Fire, the competition series that airs on the History channel. Each episode features four bladesmiths who compete in a three-round elimination contest. Though he received a couple of call backs the first time he applied, ultimately, he wasn’t selected. Finally this year he got the call for season 5. Nichols competed on the episode titled “Japanese Ono,” which aired on July 22, 2020, in which the four smiths were tasked with forging a blade that had to fit perfectly into a puzzle piece cut out.
“We filmed this past October,” Nichols says. “It all happens in four days. They flew me up one day, and the next morning, early, they drove me to the studio in an unassuming neighborhood in Connecticut. It was a lot of hurry up and wait.”
Nichols was feeling the pressure, but felt he was doing okay until the middle of the episode. He had difficulties using the tongs they provided and dropped his work on the ground a few times. And then, at the grinder, with 30 seconds left to go, the tip of his knife split, and he wasn’t able to recover from the challenge. He was eliminated in the first round. After being eliminated, contestants are no longer part of the show, so Nichols took the opportunity the next day to go to New York City, where he had never been, and spend the day going to “some of the nicest restaurants in the world.”
Back home, Nichols continues perfecting his kitchen knives. He finds inspiration in the art deco period and in the cars, ships and planes of the post-World War II-era because of their clean lines.
One of the things that sets Nichols’ knives apart from other makers is choice of materials. He incorporates a piece of history when he uses reclaimed teak decking and steel from the U.S.S. North Carolina. He also uses wood from aged Maker’s Mark and Jack Daniels whiskey barrels and maple that was originally intended for Gibson guitars but didn’t meet their specifications.
“I try to offer something that makes my knives different,” he says. “In our throw-away society, it’s nice to have something that means something to you. That way you are less prone to throw them away when they are worn out, but instead get them fixed or sharpened.”
Next on Nichols’ blade-forging bucket list is hunting knives. He’s been working with a master smith in Bladen County to learn the process.
“That’s where I am today,” he says. “We never arrive in this knife-making thing. It’s always an evolving process.”
For more information on Nicholas Nichols’ knives: nicholasnicholsknives.com.
Photography by Matt McGraw