As a young chef in 1999, Duy Pham purchased his first Japanese knife—a high-carbon and mirror-polished Ittosai honyaki (a type of blade made via the same method once used for Samurai swords)—and it changed his world. “I knew the difference right away,” says the executive chef at Foraged restaurant at downtown’s Dairy Block. “My performance, my knife skills, my cuts, everything got better instantly.”

There was just one issue with traditional Japanese knives, he noticed: Over time, their high-quality steel blades stayed in top shape while the handles tended to deteriorate. “The Japanese focus so much energy on the blade itself that the handle is an afterthought,” he says. So, about five years ago, Pham began experimenting with handle-making and, as his skills progressed, he shared photos of his work on Instagram. “It wasn’t a business at the time,” he says. “The big turn for me was when a major knife collector—he’s ranked as one of the top Japanese knife collectors in the world—contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in re-handling his knives for him.”

Pham’s knife handles feature exotic materials including mammoth tusk and ebony wood. Photo by Jeff Nelson

As Pham’s clientele grew, so did the quality of his custom creations. Today, his knife handles feature rare materials including mammoth tusk and tooth, musk ox horn, mother of pearl, and titanium. “None of my handles are basic,” he says. “I feel extremely fortunate to have clients who give me artistic freedom.” Pham also creates complete knives by pairing his handmade handles with blades made to his specifications by a Japanese manufacturer (handles range from $125 to $400, while complete knives range from $200 to $4,000; most are displayed and sold via Pham’s Instagram and at Foraged).

In the coming years, Pham hopes to make more time for forging his own steel blades—he studied under master bladesmith Murray Carter in 2016—which he will match with his exquisitely crafted handles for a one-of-a-kind take on an everyday item. “For me, it’s functional art,” he says. “And if you know how to take care of it, it should last generations.”