Progress takes time. The craft of cooking has been propelled by chef and invention alike, creating something greater together than was possible alone. And just as many of the tools great chefs and culinary experts use today have evolved, so have automobiles changed over a century of existence. But just as important as working toward the next technological innovation, whether in the craft of cooking or car making, is respecting the milestones that have empowered the artisans to where they are today.

In this first of a three-part series with Infiniti, we’ll look at one of the culinary world’s most acclaimed cookbook authors, and hear her explain why even six decades can’t dull true quality.

After nearly 60 years in the culinary world, celebrated cookbook author Paula Wolfert has given away more knives than she can remember, from paring knives to butcher’s knives, French-made, German-made, “and even those Japanese knives everyone’s crazy about these days,” she says.

But there’s one knife that she vows will stay in her family forever, and it’s not just a physical beast–it’s also one of the tools that took her from alimentary amateur to one of the most celebrated cookbook authors in America.

The cleaver measures nearly 13 inches from top to bottom, with a blade that’s seven inches long and five inches wide. At the back end, the blackened slab of steel is a good eighth of an inch thick, while the cutting edge is still as sharp as a razor–still easily one of the keenest blades in her kitchen, Wolfert says.

“It’s never lost its sharpness,” she says from her home in Sonoma, California.

The handle is a pale wood, and bears no marking, labels, or brands besides the burn marks and the nicks, chips, and stains of thousands of uses, a reassuringly firm grip that’s tailored itself to Wolfert’s palm and fingers after six decades. The blade alone weighs two pounds, and the hilt nearly as much, but the balance of the blade is nearly perfect.

And the first time she saw it, back in a French cooking store on 18th Street and Sixth Avenue in New York City in 1957, she knew she was destined to have it. Wolfert, now 77, was a college student working as the assistant to the renowned English cook Dione Lucas, who was a major influence on American cuisine and a pioneering female chef. It was Lucas who introduced Wolfert to cooking. And it was that knife that helped transform Wolfert from kitchen hobbyist to future culinary star.

Much of her job involved butchering the lobsters for Lucas’s famous lobster bisque, which involved countless hours dispatching the crustaceans before disassembling them for their meat and juices. She usually used a heavy cleaver–but it was her mentor’s, not her own.

That day in 1957, Lucas had sent Wolfert on an errand to pick up odds and ends at the French gourmet shop. She noticed the cleaver, an unabashed combination of massive power and elegant sharpness.

“It was its weight that drew me,” she says. “I’d never seen anything like it. When I saw it, I thought of the lobsters.”

Wolfert knew it was time for her to own a blade like that herself. It was a pivotal moment for a woman who was on the verge of dedicating her life to food.

She went from enthusiastic novice to cooking wunderkind–an evolution that can be credited to many factors, including a lifetime of colorful experiences, a quick mind and burning passion, and a warm personality that attracted the talents of the culinary world. But it’s also fair to say that when she returned to Lucas’s kitchen armed with her new French cleaver, Paula Wolfert transformed into a lobster-killing machine. Combined with her peculiarly human technique of calming the crustacean, the cleaver’s sharp edge and substantial heft sliced through lobsters’ armor–right there at the middle part of the back of the plated head–as if it were warm butter.

“I’d pet the lobster until it relaxed, sort of at the back of your neck where you can calm yourself,” Wolfert says. “I did that until the lobster relaxed, and then I gave it a big whack!”

Though Wolfert originally bought her cleaver to emulate Dione Lucas, she made the knife her own in the years that followed. She split countless lobsters with it, of course, but soon found other uses for it as she left Lucas’s tutelage and became one of America’s leading experts on Mediterranean cuisine.

“It’s amazing if I want to break anything open,” she says. “It cuts right through frozen food. If I’m spatchcocking a chicken, say, I’ll take my long thin slicer and put that on the chicken’s back, and then take the blunt part of this cleaver and the hit the blunt part of the other knife, and with one little tap, it’ll cut right through the bone of the chicken, because it’s so strong.”

For the most part, the cleaver now lives in one of three drawers of knives in Wolfert’s kitchen, though she’ll take it out for especially hard cutting jobs or to show to fellow knife lovers like a New York Times cooking columnist, who immediately declared it the best tool in her kitchen.

“They don’t make knives like that anymore in France,” Wolfert says. “I’ve never had knives as good as the ones I got in New York. I’ve never seen this for sale anywhere again.”

Chefs these days rarely have need of heavy cleavers like Wolfert’s, but she still considers it one of the jewels of her kitchen.

“It’s part of my background, and that’s why I’ve never given it up,” she says. “I’ve given away lots of things–things from Morocco, things from France, things from other places I’ve lived–but it has a nice connection to my memory of my first falling in love with cooking. It’s just one of those things: It puts a smile on my face.”

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from Bon Appétit