“It’s all about the control and feel,” chef and restauranteur Mario Batali tells me. “Since the machine is manually operated, the speed is completely up to me. Once I find the right momentum and get into a rhythm, it’s consistent, smooth slicing from there.”
Batali is waxing poetically about an unlikely, unsung design icon: the Berkel meat slicer. Of course, it’s not just any meat slicer. It’s the world’s first meat slicer–and, perhaps, the world’s greatest meat slicer. In fact, charcuterie zealots still swear by it today, just like audiophiles jam to vintage vinyl.
Berkel’s flywheel meat slicers from the early 1900s have long been coveted by the chef elite like Batali. But Wright auction house, known best for historic furniture auctions like the recent sale of pieces from the New York Four Seasons, is hoping collectors have a taste for the devices, too. On Thursday, Wright is trying something new, with a public auction of vintage Berkel machines produced between the 1880s and late 1950s that have all been restored to mint condition.
“It may totally flop,” laughs founder Richard Wright. “Whenever you do something outside your speciality, it’s hard to know.”
The first meat slicer was invented by Dutch butcher and engineer W.A. Van Berkel in 1898. Tired of cutting his meat with a knife, he developed an ingenious mechanism to make slicing paper-thin meat as easy as riding a bike. His flywheel design used a hand crank, while the crank connected to a relatively simple gear system that both spun a concave blade and moved meat against it at the same time.
“You can almost set it and forget it really,” says Giacomo Reni, marketing director at Emiliomiti, a San Francisco company that restores and sells such machines.
In other words, Berkel made fine butchery user-friendly, and as such, his invention’s impact on culinary history is easy to speculate about, even if it’s impossible to confirm. Americans always ate a lot of meat–even the impoverished–but around the turn of the century, a rising middle class was eating better and demanding even more, worldwide.
As Berkel wrote 50 years after the company was founded, “social conditions called for [slicers] at a moment when, on the one hand, the working classes as consumers obtained a certain–be it a moderate–degree of prosperity and were no longer content with mere bread and cheese, whilst on the other hand the butchers objected more and more to handling a carving knife, some 16 inches long, from seven o’clock in the morning till eleven o’clock at night.”
But why would anyone use such a flywheel design 100 years later? For slicing the thinnest meats like prosciutto, Batali insists there is no equal to flywheel machines, even today. Motors, built into slicers starting in the 1950s, generate heat. Heat emanates through the blade. And that means the blade begins to melt fat instead of simply cutting it, leading to jagged and uneven slices of meat.
In the world of flywheel meat slicers, vintage Berkels in particular are still beloved–even if that’s actually a bit unpatriotic. You see, from W.A. Van Berkel’s original design, multiple companies produced flywheel slicers under his patents. His U.S. Slicing Machine models, produced in America starting in 1908, look more like industrial sewing machines, featuring the sort of streamlined mechanical look that prized utility over form. But the European-born Berkels have a slight but certain extra flare–a sculptural quality of curves and tapers, the occasional use of pricey nickel over cheaper chrome, and the claw feet of a fine piece of furniture. It’s precisely this attention to detail–the old-world craftsmanship, a swan song echoing into the industrial design age–that gives them an almost darkly beautiful presence, like set pieces in a Tim Burton film.
“We have three hand-crank slicers in our different restaurants. They’ve really become streamlined and almost utilitarian at this point,” says Paul Kahan, owner and executive chef of the carnivore-friendly, Chicago-based restaurant group One Off Hospitality. “If you look at [Berkels], they’re stunning. One has a concentric circle base. They really took a lot of time, and visually they’re beautiful . . . they’re definitely a work of art, and a conversation piece.” Having tested them himself, Kahan got the sense that the old Berkels were manufactured with tight tolerances not seen in more modern machines. Despite being a century old, it felt as though they would last forever–a sentiment echoed across my interviews for this piece.
The question now for Wright is, does anyone outside a very select group of chefs and restaurateurs even care? As Wright readily admits, there’s no ready-made market for the machines, and the Berkels have been priced relatively low to start as a result–most around $7,000. Given that new manual slicers can cost anywhere from $5,000 to well over $10,000, Wright is offering a bit of a used car discount to build excitement.
“We like to be pioneers. If we’re lucky, we’re trendsetters,” says Wright. “I don’t imagine I’m launching a trend for mechanical meat slicers. But to me, the world of design is a really big world. . . . Even if this doesn’t do well financially, it was still a super cool project. I’m glad we did it.”
[Photos: via Wright]