It all started with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
For Murray Carter, growing up in the 1970s in Halifax in what he describes as a "troubled childhood," Schwarzenegger's story of personal triumph had appeal. "He was larger than life," Carter said. "Nothing was gonna stop him."
Conan the Barbarian is Carter's favourite Schwarzenegger's film – especially the opening scene, which showed Conan's father, a bladesmith, forging and chiselling a flaming sword. "The secret of the steel has always carried with it a mystery," the father says to the young Conan. "You must learn its riddle."
The movie was just one of many that Carter, now 43, describes as the "chance encounters" that led to him becoming a master Japanese bladesmith, with his knives selling for up to $4,000 a piece and prized by chefs all over the world. In a recent issue of Lucky Peach magazine, Matthew Rudofker, chef de cuisine at New York's Momofuku Ssam Bar, included Carter's in his list of the best knives in America. "His knives can just flat-out cut better than almost anyone else's," Rudofker wrote.
The other "chance encounters" Carter lists on his path include his first karate class, which introduced him to Japanese culture and prompted him to save for a trip to Japan after high school. Then there was the blade shop in Kumamoto he stumbled into, where he introduced himself to the shop's owner in broken Japanese. A year later, he flew back to apprentice with him and spent the next 18 years honing the craft.
Now based in a suburb of Portland, Ore., Carter has made more than 17,000 knives. Typical of Japanese blades, his are thinner and lighter than most European or North American ones, which means they slice through foods with less effort – cutting, rather than tearing ingredients apart.
Every one of his knives is hand-forged, which, depending on the type of blade, can take from minutes to weeks to complete. Each knife begins as a steel bar, which he heats in a pine charcoal fire ― he knows when it's ready by the colour. Most factory-made knives are drop-forged (flattened by dropping a giant, heavy hammer in one quick motion), but he uses a small power hammer and a hand-held hammer to slowly flatten the bar into blades.
"I have other Japanese knives, but nine times out of 10 I'm going to reach for his," said Alton Brown, host of Good Eats and Iron Chef America on the Food Network. Carter brings an "American mind" toward innovation to his knives, Brown said. "A lot of the best Japanese knife makers are simply replicating and maintaining tradition, which is important, but they're not necessarily evolving. Murray does."
Take cutting vegetables. "You'll notice with Murray's, he treats his blade in such a way that the food doesn't stick to the side of it – it falls away from it," Brown said. "There's an elegance that comes out of a real understanding of what the purpose of the tools are."
Brown, who calls himself a "steel snob," said the key to Carter's success is in the metallurgy. Carter uses Japanese white and blue steel, and combines different types in each blade – layering, say, a hard steel under a soft one so that one supports the other. "You end up with a blade that's almost alive," Brown said.
This language is familiar territory for Carter, who likes to describe the knife-forging process as a metaphor for life. "People talk about life's experience being the refiner's fire," he said, "and you're taking raw material and refining it and polishing it into something useful."