Working on the Knife's Edge

Nate Bonner has found success, tragedy and redemption in the eye of his forge.
Nate Bonner has found success, tragedy and redemption in the eye of his forge. PHUONG BUI

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click to enlarge Bonner uses a hydraulic press, one of the steps in his process. - PHUONG BUI
Bonner uses a hydraulic press, one of the steps in his process.

Bonner moved back to St. Louis after a few years at the New England Culinary Institute and found work as a chef. However, something inside of him kept telling him the profession wasn't the right fit. The more he kept trying to figure out a way to stay in the culinary field, the worse his compulsive tendencies became. He found himself polishing knives like he was scratching an itch and drinking too much until, finally, he had a revelation.

"I realized that I wanted to be my own boss and be an entrepreneur," Bonner says. "So, one day, I bought a knife blank and put a handle on it. My dad said I could use his woodshop out back whenever I wanted, and I started buying blanks anywhere I could get them and started putting knives together and figuring it out."

Bonner hoped he could transition to knife making full time. On a whim one day, he went into Bertarelli Cutlery, the highly regarded knife shop on the Hill, and had a lengthy chat with owner Dan Bertarelli about his craft. He'd brought with him two of the pieces he was working on. Bonner now says they weren't the best made, but they were cool looking. Bertarelli ordered ten. It was unexpectedly great news, but the task of producing for one of the city's foremost knife experts was overwhelming. Bonner felt that things had escalated too quickly.

"I went to my car and started bawling my eyes out," Bonner says.

The unexpected affirmation Bertarelli gave to Bonner should have been cause for celebration, but these were not tears of joy. Instead, feelings of imposter syndrome flooded into his mind, making him feel both undeserving of the success he imagined and unprepared to meet the moment. He knew that if he was going to push through these negative thoughts, he would need the support of those who knew him best.

Bonner found that help in his family, particularly his stepmom, Melody Noel. After seeing the knives he was making, Noel recognized her stepson's talent, and she wanted to help turn his longtime passion into a legitimate business. It helped that she, too, was looking for a new direction. A longtime lawyer, Noel was ready to leave that field behind to pursue something else, even if she was not quite sure what that was. When Bonner came to her with the idea for a knife business, she wanted to help.

"I knew that he was not happy and not fulfilled with being in the culinary arena," Noel says. "He just really was not liking it, and when he came to me with these knives he'd made, I had never seen anything like them. He's such a creative person, and I felt that he could really make a go of this, so I gave him some help and ended up taking a sabbatical that turned into retirement."

Armed with that raw talent and a mutual desire to change course, Bonner and Noel cofounded NHB Knifeworks out of a dingy warehouse in south St. Louis in 2012. Bonner knew he would one day like to forge his own knives, but he wanted to start slowly and focused strictly on assembling pieces, adding handles he'd sourced from Japan to knife blanks that he would shape and polish. Through word of mouth and an online store Noel set up, they gained enough momentum right out of the gate to realize they were onto something.

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