Don Nguyen Knives: A cut above the rest

"I knew from the beginning I wanted to make it my livelihood.”

Don Nguyen is a cutler or in more modern lingo, a knifemaker. But cutler speaks more to the artisan and Nguyen is a true artisan when it comes to knife making.

Chefs from across the country admire the feel, the weight, and the keen edges of Nguyen’s various knives.

(Photo courtesy of Don Nguyen Knives)

Photo courtesy of Don Nguyen Knives

The list of local chefs who use his knives is long and varied:
  • Gary Hickey of Charro Steak & del Rey
  • Roderick LeDesma of Casino del Sol
  • Obadiah Hindman of Mountain Oyster Club
  • Maria Mazon of BOCA by Chef Maria Mazon
  • Jun Arai of Ginza Sushi and Raijin Ramen
  • Tommy Begay of Sushi on Oracle
  • Ken Foy of Dante’s Fire
  • Dominique Stoller of Casa Madre
  • Ben Forbes of Forbes Meat Co., who is rumored to have two knives
  • Tucson Foodie contributor and photographer, Jackie Tran, uses his knives at his new food truck, Tran’s Fats
  • Juan Almanza of El Taco Rustico (which can be seen below in the video)

All these chefs agree that Nguyen is an “amazing part of the Tucson culinary community.” Owning one of his knives is a source of pride.

A Dull Knife and an Inspiration

Nguyen, who is self-taught, got the inspiration to follow his vocation from a knife that was anything but sharp.

While preparing dinner at a friend’s home, the only knife available to him was a well-worn serrated one. That “knife” could barely cut butter let alone the passel of onions that he needed for the dish he was preparing.

As an avid cook, he owned a set of good knives but even they had become dull. He knew there had to be something better out there. At the time, he was also studying at Pima Community College but was unsure if he wanted to pursue any career in those fields.

Photo courtesy of Don Nguyen Knives on Instagram

Photo courtesy of Don Nguyen Knives

The Next Step

He later studied engineering at the University of Arizona, but to solve his knife issues he began watching knife-sharpening videos on YouTube.

“Then I found out that there were people out in the world making knives, as a profession, mainly in Japan, but I thought that was super cool,” Nguyen said, “It was interesting enough that I decided that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I knew from the beginning I wanted to make it my livelihood.”

The Making of a Knife Master

All that networking and YouTube watching sounds simple, but Nguyen had to put his nose to the proverbial grindstone to learn the fine craft of making knives.

“I did a lot of homework. I found classes at Pima for machining and welding, just to get my feet wet for metalworking stuff,” he said. “There was a class at Pima West that was kind of like an open workshop class for bladesmithing and blacksmithing. It was an open workshop class. I took that class and that was kind of the beginning of my whole knife-making career.”

Don Nguyen of Don Nguyen Knives (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Don Nguyen of Don Nguyen Knives (Credit: Jackie Tran)

He took his time though, earning a materials science and engineering degree from the university, which, oddly enough, didn’t increase his knowledge of metallurgy.

“But it got me into an engineering mindset, which really helps me today,” he said, noting that most of the other engineering classes were a bit too theoretical.

His next lessons in knife making were not as formal.

“With the very first knives that I made, I was dead serious,” said Nguyen. “I spent a lot of time making sure that I learned the proper design, the geometry, the heat treating, and all of that stuff.”

Don Nguyen of Don Nguyen Knives grinding a knife (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Don Nguyen of Don Nguyen Knives grinding a knife (Credit: Jackie Tran)

He was also doing a lot of networking, posting his progress on online forums for people who liked kitchen knives. People liked what they saw and so by the time he graduated college he had a following.

“I wasn’t starting from scratch. So, then once I graduated college I decided this is it, I’m just gonna go for it.”

This all began in 2010. By 2017, he was representing Tucson at the Damasteel Chef Invitational, a major gathering in the world of knifemaking.

The Making of a Knife

Nguyen makes knives using high-carbon steel (52100 and W2) for the blade. The handles vary; sometimes wood or sometimes composite materials.

All of the elements in nature are involved: earth, fire, water, and air. Add a sure hand and a fine eye for detail and, of course, a major dose of creativity and you’ve got a beautiful blade.

Words can’t really describe the process that goes into creating a knife but the following clip brings it all into focus. The video shows Nguyen and his partner, Sam Murlless, making the knife that was the grand prize for the 2019 Tucson Knife Fight. The video is a tad lengthy but well worth the time.

From Team Race Cars to Team Knives

In the early days, Nguyen was the lone employee but then along came Sam Murlless. He was actually a lifelong friend who shared Nguyen’s other passion, building race cars. They’d worked together on several projects.

Murlless asked Nguyen if he could shadow him in the knife shop. This was in 2017. Nguyen agreed. Murlless had ulterior motives though, he wanted a job.

(Photo courtesy of Don Nguyen Knives)

Don Nguyen and Sam Murlless (Photo courtesy of Don Nguyen Knives)

At first, Nguyen was reluctant, but then as he assessed the status of the business, he decided to bring Murlless on. The duo is still going strong and they recently brought on an apprentice.

Custom Knives

“In general, in the past, what I’ve done is just kind of make whatever I felt like making, and then I would offer it out in the form of an email newsletter and whoever would want it,” said Nguyen. “They would just email me back and say ‘here’s my address, here’s the money, I’d like this knife.’”

(Photo courtesy of Don Nguyen Knives)

Photo courtesy of Don Nguyen Knives

But a custom-made knife is what many chefs want.

Nguyen had to find a balance because sometimes the list of custom-made knives can get a little backed up. They include a lot of prep time, including meeting with the chefs, watching them work, and assessing their needs and wants.

Gary Hickey bought Nguyen’s first boning knife five years ago.

“I reached out to him. Don came to the restaurant and watched me break down all the subprimals for service,” said Hickey. “Don measured my hand, the length of the knife, and the flexibility of the blade. Three months later he presented a rendering of what is still my daily driver. We call it the Lambo (Lamborghini) because it’s faster than any other knife in the kitchen.”

As a plus, Hickey said, “He will sharpen your knives for life.”

Photo courtesy of Don Nguyen Knives on Instagram

Chef Ken Foy’s damascus knife (Photo courtesy of Don Nguyen Knives on Instagram)

Chef Ken Foy loves his damascus knife (a knife with a pattern built into the steel.)

“What I think people need to know is, when Don makes a knife it’s a collaborative process,” said Foy. “You are not picking a knife off a shelf. He designed that knife for the exact purpose with input on specifications needed of the user and the task the knife will be performing.”

Knife Fight

Tucson Knife Fight is an annual competition where local chefs are pitted against one another much like Iron Chef, only with a little more grit. Four years ago, the organizers decided to offer one of Nguyen’s knives as the grand prize.

Chef Dominique Stoller of the soon-to-be-open Casa Madre was a competitor and a long-time fan of Nguyen.

“I was at an event and I saw another chef with this beautiful unique knife with what looked like a black marble handle,” she said. “It was stunning. I asked where he got it and he told me about Don and I thought to myself ‘I had to get one.’”

She eventually did, by winning the 2019 Knife Fight and one of Nguyen’s meat cleavers.

Michael Elefante, Dominique Stoller, Don Nguyen Spoons, and Gary Hickey

Michael Elefante, Dominique Stoller, Don Nguyen, and Gary Hickey (Credit: Melissa Stihl)

She uses the beauty both at home and at work.

“It has a good feel in your hand; it’s comfortable to use. You can tell a lot of thought goes into each piece,” said Stoller.

The knives continue to be Tucson Knife Fight’s grand prize.

Other Cuts

Nguyen has been wanting to create a line of knives that were “more accessible for people to buy.” But because of a full workload, he kept delaying the project. Then last month, he announced the launch of his new Design Series. Starting with a six-inch petty utility knife, Nguyen will produce small batches with plans to add larger and other styles of knives in the future.

As a final touch, Nguyen signs all of his knives, a most fitting finish to these works of art.

(Photo courtesy of Don Nguyen Knives)

Photo courtesy of Don Nguyen Knives

For more information on Nguyen’s knives, visit donnguyenknives.com

Rita Connelly is the author of "Lost Restaurants of Tucson," "Historic Restaurants of Tucson," and "Arizona Chimichangas" published by The History Press.

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