Can a knife save a life? How addiction and recovery forged one of the Bay Area’s most beloved businesses

Can a knife save a life? How addiction and recovery forged one of the Bay Area’s most beloved businesses

To Josh Donald and Kelly Kozak, the owners of San Francisco’s Bernal Cutlery, knives are like living beings. 

Their blades contain smells, emotions and past lives. 

So it only makes sense that knives saved theirs.

More than 20 years ago, emerging from the throes of drug and alcohol addiction, the couple put up flyers advertising Donald’s knife-sharpening services. They charged $5 per knife. Word quickly spread through San Francisco’s restaurants and butcher shops about the talented young sharpener and his knife-obsessed wife.

Bernal Cutlery co-owner Kelly Kozak talks with customer Jasper Kasle-Muthig at the San Francisco store in June.

Juliana Yamada/The Chronicle

In 2005, Donald and Kozak formalized their operation as Bernal Cutlery, a cult favorite business beloved by chefs and home cooks alike. They hit two major milestones this year: 21 years sober, and the production of their first-ever knife. After years of studying and sharpening other blades, Bernal Cutlery now has its own “Greenfield Gyuto” knife, made with Oakland bladesmith Elias Sideris, available for preorder starting Friday.

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The utilitarian but elegant chef’s knife ($396) comes in carbon or stainless steel. It marries Western and Japanese knife-making techniques, stamped with a California poppy and the first letters of the city where they built their business. And it’s a tangible expression of the couple’s deep-seated reverence for the living history of knives.

Tim Ferron tests a prototype of Bernal Cutlery’s own chef’s knife in San Francisco in September.

Tim Ferron tests a prototype of Bernal Cutlery’s own chef’s knife in San Francisco in September.

Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

Donald remembers his first blade: a pen knife he found in the back of a dresser at 5 years old. 

Kozak, who grew up in a family of Pennsylvania steelworkers, long felt a nostalgic connection to her grandmother’s kitchen knives and grandfather’s pocket knife. 

The craft and utility of objects became a throughline in their lives. Donald moved to San Francisco in 1993 and worked in sculpture, carving stone and casting bronze, trades that required expertly sharpened tools. Kozak came to San Francisco at age 24 to attend art school. They met at Paxton Gate, a curiosity shop selling taxidermy and pinned insects. She needed moths for an art project. He was the store’s “bug guy.” 

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Bernal Cutlery co-owner Josh Donald (right) speaks with customer Eloise Bates. The store carries thousands of knives and offers sharpening services. 

Bernal Cutlery co-owner Josh Donald (right) speaks with customer Eloise Bates. The store carries thousands of knives and offers sharpening services. 

Juliana Yamada/The Chronicle

They fell in love, and then into serious addiction. 

They lived in a studio on O’Farrell Street overlooking an alleyway in the heart of the Tenderloin. Any money they could scrape together went to heroin and cocaine. They rationed a hot dog and tortilla a day between the two of them and their cat. Kozak weighed less than 100 pounds. She remembers walking into a coffee shop at that time, and “it was like people kind of parted,” she said. “It was clear, the contrast between real life and where we were.”

They benefited from the city’s harm reduction services, meant to minimize the negative consequences of drug use through programs like needle exchanges. They would periodically try to get sober, then relapse. 

Bernal Cutlery co-owner Josh Donald (right) chats with Elias Sideris, an Oakland knifemaker who helped create the store’s chef’s knife.

Bernal Cutlery co-owner Josh Donald (right) chats with Elias Sideris, an Oakland knifemaker who helped create the store’s chef’s knife.

Juliana Yamada/The Chronicle

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Donald had the creeping sense that, “I’m not really driving this train. Like, the brakes don’t work.”

They were four months late on rent, about to be evicted, when something shifted in each of them. They called Donald’s uncle, who picked them up the next day at 7 a.m. and took them to the city-run Tom Waddell Urban Health Clinic. They had bloodwork done and were placed in separate detox facilities for 17 days. 

After getting sober, they relied on social services and food stamps. Their early hustles — reselling knives they found at flea markets and sharpening new ones — put food on the table and kept them focused on sobriety. They had their first child and then two more. While their kids slept, they’d hunt for antique knives on eBay and research their origins. The sharpening business soon took over the utility room of their Bernal Heights apartment, where butchers knocked on the front door at a certain time to drop off and pick up their knives. 

They graduated to a nearby food business incubator, then their own small storefront on Guerrero Street in 2013. Around this time, they began to fantasize about manufacturing their own knife and “bringing knifemaking back to San Francisco,” Kozak said, but doing so was prohibitively expensive.

The Bernal Cutlery team spent months tinkering with materials and prototypes to create the store's first-ever knife.

The Bernal Cutlery team spent months tinkering with materials and prototypes to create the store’s first-ever knife.

Juliana Yamada/The Chronicle

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Donald — enthusiastic, tattooed and often wearing a newsboy cap — was eager to keep learning. So they offered free follow-up sharpenings, during which they could ask how the knives performed and what they could improve — curiosity that set them apart from mostly formulaic sharpening services. Chefs appreciated someone who “just did it the right way,” said Cory Obenour, owner of longtime San Francisco restaurant Blue Plate and one of Donald’s earliest customers.  

The store, their largest yet, has a church-like feel. Customers — often reverent line cooks making a pilgrimage to the famed knife haven — pass through a large arched front door and under a piece of colorful stained glass (stamped with a knife) to the abundant selection of cutlery and cooking accoutrements. 

Tiffany Lyons, left, shops at Bernal Cutlery in San Francisco with her son, Logan Lyons, and sister Haley Mason, right, in June.

Tiffany Lyons, left, shops at Bernal Cutlery in San Francisco with her son, Logan Lyons, and sister Haley Mason, right, in June.

Juliana Yamada/The Chronicle

Each of the store’s 28,000 knives tells a story. There’s a French nogent-style knife that Kozak likes to tell customers Julia Child “would have peed her pants over.” There are hand-forged German steak knives with walnut wood handles ($578 for six), but also a $19 simple French paring knife. Every inch of the store is full of discoveries: cookbooks and Chinese cleavers and Japanese donabes.

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During the pandemic, they created one of the Bay Area’s best pantry sections, stocked with everything from dashi made for the store in Japan and Taiwanese soy sauce to a wall of tinned fish. Their customer base expanded to include more novice cooks and tech workers, with unused Bed Bath & Beyond knives. Kozak, a warm well of knife knowledge, contributes to the sense that Bernal Cutlery welcomes amateurs as much as experts. (They say they will never judge any knife brought in for sharpening.)

San Francisco chef Spencer Horovitz recalls vividly his first trip to Bernal Cutlery in 2015. Fresh out of culinary school, he drove over an hour to purchase a Japanese slicer and a razor-sharp santoku knife. The store served as a gathering place for many local cooks, who would check the shop’s job listings board as their knives were sharpened.

“They’ve created a community around knives, which is really special and helps them transcend just a physical place to buy things,” Horovitz said. 

Prototypes of Bernal Cutlery’s own knife, which is now available.

Prototypes of Bernal Cutlery’s own knife, which is now available.

Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

A knife is an intimate, personal choice, almost like picking a partner. “There’s no best knife,” said Sideris, the bladesmith and a former Bernal Cutlery customer, who bonded years ago with Donald and Kozak over the wonky annals of knife production. (All three like to smell knives as a way to get to know them better.)

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But the new “Greenfield Gyuto” encapsulates, for them, the most compelling parts of knife history: 19th-century American and Japanese cutlery production. The name refers to Greenfield, Mass., the birthplace of American knife-making, and where Sideris once ran a workshop. (Kozak also grew up in a Pennsylvania neighborhood called Greenfield.) “Kanto-gyuto,” meanwhile, is a knife made with Japanese techniques but spurred by the introduction of Western food to the country in the late 19th century. The knife’s 9-inch blade is inspired by that Japanese tradition, while its wooden handle cites a New England Industrial Revolution style. 

It’s a simple design that took “how it works and feels as a primary consideration,” Donald said. “It’s not aesthetics first.”

Bernal Cutlery co-owner Josh Donald grinds a knife prototype on a Japanese kaiten in the San Francisco store.

Bernal Cutlery co-owner Josh Donald grinds a knife prototype on a Japanese kaiten in the San Francisco store.

Juliana Yamada/The Chronicle

The knives are ground at Bernal Cutlery on a 200-pound stone wheel called a kaiten. Used by few American knife stores, Donald and Kozak purchased it from a knifemaker in Sakai, Japan. This summer, Donald and Sideris hand-ground several early prototypes, feeling intuitively as the metal blades shrieked and sparked against the enormous, spinning wheel.

By the fall, they had two final prototypes, one made from carbon steel and the other from Swedish stainless steel. Employees tested them for the first time for a staff meal in September, keeping detailed notes as they sliced through red cabbage, potatoes and carrots. They performed stress tests by cutting through a crusty baguette and sturdy lemongrass.

For years, when people asked how they started Bernal Cutlery, they kept its origin story mostly private. They didn’t want to prescribe a certain path to recovery or be reduced to a caricature. 

San Francisco's Bernal Cutlery has been a staple of the Bay Area food community since 2005.

San Francisco’s Bernal Cutlery has been a staple of the Bay Area food community since 2005.

Juliana Yamada/The Chronicle

The pair felt an increasing responsibility to share what at least one path to recovery in this city can look like.

“It sounds corny, but it was like choosing life,” Kozak said of their sobriety. “We woke up every morning and that’s what we chose.

“What you see here,” she added, at the store filled with gleaming blades and curious customers, “is really evidence of us doing that on a day-to-day basis.”

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