The knife business, says Hans-Joachim Giesser, is slow to change. As part of the latest generation to run German knife manufacturer Giesser Messerfabrik, he's well acquainted with the weight of tradition in the cutlery trade. The Giesser family began making knives for local farmers and butchers in 1776, the year the US won its independence. Its strong roots have served it well in the ensuing centuries. Today, Giesser Messerfabrik is split in two, with half of its business efforts focused on the meat industry, and the other half on catering and hospitality.
While knives are, in Giesser's words, "a very conservative market", the modern hospitality industry is not. Food and restaurant trends these days call for variety, spectacle and close attention paid to a widening array of dietary preferences. If hotel kitchens are to incorporate each new change to the landscape, they need tools to uphold standards of safety, hygiene and durability, and combine them with an up-to-date versatility.
Soon after Giesser became co-owner in 1989, it became clear that kitchens needed more imaginative solutions for cross-contamination. It was no longer enough just to separate tools for meat and vegetables. "The hotels were getting bigger and bigger, especially in Asian and Middle Eastern countries, and they needed to set up systems for better hygiene standards in the kitchens," he explains.
Giesser Messerfabrik became one of the first companies to implement colour-coded knife handles in the early 1990s. As specific dietary requirements have made their way into the mainstream, the company has developed a light-purplecoloured range of knives and other tools to stand out among other kitchen implements - easily identifiable for halal, vegan, gluten-free and allergen-free food preparation.
Colourful handles have another purpose: they catch the eye, express a chef's personality and help to turn the process of cooking into a visual spectacle. Giesser Messerfabrik offers etching and personalisation services for individual chefs, which is part of what brought Michelin-starred German barbecue chef Ralf Jakumeit to Giesser's office in 2016 with a special request. Jakumeit founded Rocking Chefs, a chef collective that has its own live TV cooking show, in addition to catering large events and teaching classes. A barbecue specialist whose work is always on display, he wanted a one-of-a-kind knife that would look the part.
"Jakumeit approached us and said he wanted to have his own knife, and I said, 'Yes, of course - we have plenty of possibilities; let me have your drawing'," explains Giesser. "We were sitting at the table, I gave him a sheet of paper and he drew a knife. It was quite a unique shape."
That was the birth of the PremiumCut line: a barbecue knife, filet knife and chef's knife made to Jakumeit's specifications. The PremiumCut series is made from chrome-molybdenum steel that has undergone vacuum hardening to 57 HRC (Rockwell C Hardness), honed above and beyond the demands of a normal knife. Four handle variants, including white cedar and Micarta, provide variety and flair.
"You can imagine - we make 8,000 knives a day, so when a new knife comes up, it's very special and it means something," says Giesser. "We realised immediately that there is great potential behind it. You can attract people when you do barbecue or when you're at the carvery station; you have a very nice piece of beef, for example, and you slice it easily with a very sharp, exotic-looking knife. That attracts the guests and they feel like you're a perfect chef."
Amidst new innovations, Giesser Messerfabrik holds onto the heritage and expertise that makes its knives more than just showpieces. Unusual in the knife trade, it runs a threeand- a-half-year apprenticeship programme to ensure its staff is fully trained in the cutler's arts.
"The challenge is to keep up the very high quality, to train young people and to make them aware that they are making knives for professionals. We cannot disappoint our customers," concludes Giesser.