Aubrey Neuman, executive chef of The Social List, sliced through a white onion, dicing it into tiny pieces as her eyes watered. She moved on to a handful of parsley, angling her knife and pushing downward, then sliding it back toward her body as each tiny stalk seemed to give its head and its bitter leaves up willingly. I captured these moments with my camera, at first zooming in to just her hand and the chopped vegetables, then later I stood on a step stool as she looked upward at my lens, smiling how a young professional smiles, a little sheepish, but giddy at the chance to be seen.
Halfway through this effort to showcase Aubrey's expertise for the Post’s feature on Five Female Chefs Rocking the Long Beach Culinary Scene, she completely stops moving to murmur, "Shoot, I should have brought my Long Beach knife. I completely forgot it." She looks at me, frozen, as I hold my camera near my chest, still ready to move forward despite her misgivings. She says, "No that's okay, that's okay...," followed by another "Shoot!"
I ask her where it is and she says it's at her apartment, only blocks away from the kitchen we're currently standing in. I tell her we might as well grab it and I'm so glad we did, because otherwise, I would not have discovered Noah Cowan, a friend of Aubrey's from high school and the owner and creator of Aura Knifeworks, a company which designs and hand-makes custom fitted knives for professional chefs.
Noah began making knives in his dad's garage in Long Beach, in a tiny space that was too hot to use during sweltering summer days. Full of used, craigslist-purchased hand tools and machines, the five foot by ten foot space barely contained the scroll saw, grinders and the band saw he couldn't afford to fix.
Pictured from left to right: Teddy Ryan, Noah Cowan, and Noah Gordon.
"I maximized every inch of that space. In the summer I would have to work at night because it would get so hot. You were wearing a respirator the whole time, too, which would add six degrees...The band saw I could never get fixed, now of course it's fixed, now I can afford to fix anything," Noah said.
He started out wanting to be a chef, and began working at the Hyatt in Long Beach at 17. The Hyatt is where Noah fell in love with the knife, the only modicum of translatable support he could garner in such a make-it-or-break-it type work environment.
"The Hyatt was an apprenticeship, he explained. "It was where I really fell in love with the knife because in the kitchen, when you get dropped into it with no experience, that is one tough environment to be in. This is going to sound super weird, but my knife was my friend. When it’s you and it’s a bunch of chefs and you're cooking for a hotel for that many people, my knife became my inspiration to put up with all the shit...
"I was the lowest person there. They would hand me 100 pounds of carrots and I would have to peel all of them. They did that so many times I could peel 50 pounds of carrots in 20 minutes, just shattering records. You kind of have to make a game of it."
Eventually Noah grew out of his knife and decided he could design a better one. "I wanted to modify my knife and I couldn't find anyone doing it," he said. "So I had to teach myself and the more I taught myself the more fun I had with it. It inherently was identical to cooking except it didn't have a time frame. So I could be the perfectionist that I am without worrying about tickets piling up."
And quite the perfectionist he was. Several years later, Noah was working four different jobs, including being a line cook at Fora in Naples and running his own guerrilla catering business, all the while attending one of the top ten culinary schools in the nation at OCC, where he learned enough geometry to start “messing around,” as he described it, with knives.
By this time, Noah was helping friends modify their own knives, and he began working with one of his mentors, Chef Paul Buchanan, on prototyping a new approach to the chef's knife. Borrowing from the physics and geometry of wakeboarding, Noah and Chef Paul drew inspiration from a board shape called a three-stage rocker, which allows the wakeboard to "explosively pop off the wake." Instead of a traditional knife bevel, which Noah says actually prevents performance, his wakeboard-inspired blade shape would increase the angular acceleration of the knife when pushed forward, then make it pop back to its starting position. Noah's modern approach to a tool so heavily rooted in tradition was, at the very least, ambitious.
"Once I really started to understand what chef knives were, I started to see that they are made as if McDonalds is making them," he said. "They’re just pumped out. It takes $5 to make one, then they market the shit out of it, in a very bad way, because chefs are going to buy them anyway. There’s no life involved. It’s just a steel, plastic thing that cuts food kind of well, that’s nowhere near as great as it could be. And chefs have never questioned it because chefs have always been told to do things based on tradition. You’re supposed to wear out a knife or lose it and then get a new one. No one really questioned that tradition."
When asked if he had any doubts about starting a company whose sole purpose is to build upon, yet harshly question, a seemingly timeless tradition, he said he had none. Noah said, "I knew it would take off. I didn’t know it would take as long as it has, but I guess success is the progressive realization of a worthy ideal, and this ideal has always been worthy, ever since day one.
"Really in the last five years, what I think has really done it, is chefs started communicating with each other. Also being a chef is becoming way more creative than it has been in the past and chefs are starting to realize newer techniques that haven’t been tried before. They're starting to reject tradition when it’s not working.”
Noah reminisced about his grueling work at the Hyatt, now more of a fond memory than anything else. "Now I like peeling carrots, but back then it was the shittiest job to have. Chopping through vegetables, getting blisters, like having your knife there, it really was your friend, it really helped you put up with the shit because that was the one thing in the kitchen that wasn’t the kitchen’s property, it was yours and, I mean, the kitchen had knives you could use but, if I did that I would not have fallen in love with it the way I did. It’s kind of like a bike. If you’re using your friends bike the whole time, you’re never going to fully get into cycling," he said.
Noah's team is made up of two people, Noah Gordon and Teddy Ryan, two long-time friends who understood Noah's dream and were able to learn the trade quickly.
"I guess they found me," Noah said. "They just saw the dream and the vision and they saw where it was going and they were really talented and a lot like me. The fact that school, the whole college route, just wasn't working for them... It’s like if you judge a fish by how well it can climb a tree, the fish is not going to think it’s very smart. So they're swimming with me very well. They can make a knife really well and they learned it so quickly. And they don’t want anything out of it. They just want to learn."
The Santa Fe Springs warehouse, where the first 90 or so knives have been made, is a testament to working with what you have... and if what you have is a makeshift loft about the size of a large walk-in closet, then that's what you'll use. Upon entering the space, you first walk into a stark, white-walled front office, where piles of burl, unfinished knives and a Grizzly knife buffer sit unassumingly, waiting to be used. A little further in and you'll walk through another doorway and enter a large, gently lit space full of printing machines and palettes that have nothing to do with Aura Knifeworks. Climb the precarious ladder directly to your left and there you have it; a small, dusty pseudo-room with no ventilation, no place to sit and even less space to work. It's a crowded hole-in-the-wall with two people. With me, my camera and both Noahs at work, it was almost impossible to move around.
As Noah sipped his tea, he explained, "Our shop is still set up in Santa Fe Springs. That shop is almost scrappier than how my dad’s garage was. It really has all our vibes in there."
How 90-plus gorgeous, state-of-the-art masterpieces emerged from such a humble setting is mind boggling and impressive; however, Aura Knifeworks recently received an investment, providing the kind of funding they need to take the next step. The team moved into a much larger warehouse in Signal Hill during the first week of October and Noah finally has the means to pay his two employees and himself.
Noah continued, "...and Signal Hill, I’m actually signing the lease right after this. It's 1,450 square feet. It has two little offices, a bathroom, a huge warehouse and we know exactly what we’re doing with it." The new warehouse certainly carries a vibrant energy, with bright orange and magenta painted walls, long angular tables jutting out into the center of the room, and a space large enough to finally breath in, a space the Aura Knifeworks team can inhabit happily and truly call their own.
As of six months ago, Aura Knifeworks opened an office in San Francisco for fifty cents a month thanks to the generocity of a very supportive family member. "In San Francisco they do things completely differently than we do here,” said Noah. “They waste a lot less time, it’s a lot more optimistic, it’s evolved up there. There’s so much to learn.” He hopes to gain a foothold for Aura Knifeworks in such a culinary hotbed, where “there’s 4,500 restaurants in a five-mile radius,” he exclaimed, “Where else would that happen?”
As far as material is concerned, there is nothing on an Aura knife that doesn't serve a purpose. “Form follows function just like flavor has to come before the art of the plate. You can’t make something look like a Michelin Star dish,” Noah iterated, “and not have it taste like a Michelin Star restaurant made it. That’s how I go into everything. The knife has to function at its best and if one of the ingredients I’m using isn’t helping that function, then I’m not going to use that ingredient. It would be kind of pointless. So it’s art with a point.”
He met a wood forager when he was in Stanton, a woman who would scour firewood lots and return with a “crate full of gold,” and often times give him the first pick of her findings. “The wood we work with, there’s so much life inside of it,” he said. Greg Madrigal, one of Noah’s mentors who introduced him to the Orange County Woodworker’s Association, taught him about burl, one of nature’s finest mutations.
“We use burl because of its grain structure,” Noah explained, “It grows in a spiral out from the center and that captures every iota of energy from your hand and shoots it to the end of the chop. It’s kind of like a tree’s version of a pearl. It builds this mass around an infection to isolate it, usually the infection is a rock... so it’s a rare grain mutation. People have to go into the forest with their chainsaws to look for them. So when you get them they come in big pieces. Whenever the burl comes it’s like Christmas because none of them are ever similar. They’re all completely different.”
The black palm, another element of the handle, is “nature’s purest fiberglass,” he continued, “It’s basically a series of hard fiberglass straws similar to bamboo except much harder. We have this piece at a forty-degree angle facing downward. These straws combined with the wood we use guide every little movement into the chop. Even the grain we use affects how the knife works.”
Noah held up a knife that Teddy had just finished buffing, the blade covered in painters’ tape to protect it from mineral dust. He angled the handle to show off the malachite, its rich, greenish turquoise color glinting, even in the pale fluorescence of the Santa Fe Springs office. “The gemstone is here for a reason,” he said, “it’s a counterbalance.” Noah Gordon had engraved a chili pepper into the gemstone, a fitting decorative element for a tool headed to a chili festival outside Pittsburgh.
Each blade is made of high-grade rustless, but not stainless, carbon steel, put through a tempering process known as deep cryogenic processing. Due to this process, every Aura knife blade is distinctively hard, incredibly sharp, and retains its edge implausibly well. Time and use show on each blade as a beautiful patina, a unique stamp, if you will, of the lucky owner’s energy.
Back at The Social List, Aubrey held her knife up in a firm grasp, then took her hand off to show me how the handle had been made for the size and shape of her grip. Each curve and each dip in the knife’s handle had come from a clay mold of her hand she had given the Aura team, who promptly fashioned each piece of wood and gemstone based on her hold. Chefs can request that the handle be made for their hand or they can purchase the model that is “custom fit to the human hand instead of one person’s hand,” said Noah. “We started making this one so we can make more knives and get them out there more quickly… They say a knife is an extension of your hand. I took it literally.”
When it comes to his creative process, Noah asks a lot of questions. “I feel like if you give your mind a problem, your subconscious mind will work on it throughout the day. Then when you’re the closest to sleep, your subconscious will offer up the answer it has been trying to figure out all day. So none of my problems are solved with my conscious, their all primitive answers from the core. Which is good because then I don’t develop an ego from any of the ideas. I don’t feel like I earned that idea, but I did, in a way…” he trails off.
I asked Noah if he had received any criticism from his customers, he explained, “I guess the only criticisms I’ve received were about the price. Most chef knives are only about $150 and that’s what we’re used to. There’s been a trend of, like now my price seems fine, but a couple years ago it seemed too high. I guess I was on the edge...I’ve always been on the edge. Well, it’s a knife, it’s the edge.”
What frustrates him, he says, is when people think they’re paying extra for a “pretty” knife, when they think they’re buying it for the looks. “I mean, it performs better than any other chef knife in the world, in my humble opinion. Maybe it looks too good, maybe I overdid it in that regard,” he muses.
With Noah’s experience attending OCC’s culinary school and a background of experience in multiple kitchens, it’s no wonder he compares his product to the chief of the culinary industry. He spoke passionately about his goals for Aura Knifeworks, saying “The chef has to know everything in order to be able to lead. And when people say chef, that’s a sign of respect. You don’t call them by their first name, you don’t call them by their last name, you call them chef. If they’re a sous chef, you can call them Chef Greg, but the head chef, you call chef. It’s just a sign of respect. And that’s the goal of my knife. If knives could talk, this is the knife the other knives would call chef, out of respect.”
An aura, the distinctive atmosphere or quality that seems to surround and be generated by a person, thing, or place, can barely describe the amount of life, per say, that Noah and his team invest into each knife, into each outstanding work of craftsmanship and art. It’s all a part of the dream, the dream to have and to use a tool expertly crafted for your hand, not stamped out in a lifeless factory. It’s all about the quality, the connection and learning to value the work of a kitchen professional in such a way that his or her tools reflect that value.
While Noah Cowan moved away from pursuing his career as a chef, for now, he has even bigger plans for the future. As a young man with a detailed vision and such a vibrant imagination, it’s no surprise he already has blueprints drawn for his future restaurant. “I'll always be a chef," he said. "I'll never stop cooking. One day I want to have a restaurant, and I already have the blueprints for it, believe it or not. It's going to be in the forest, with four geodesic glass domes above the tables, and it's going to have one in the center of the kitchen and it's going to be in Oregon and at night with the forest lit up. It's going to have Michelin Stars for sure. And I want to make wine too, that's my other thing…”