This season we are sharing the stories of remarkable locals who are breaking the mould and shaping their own path to success. First up we meet teenager Leila Haddad, a knife maker in high demand among Australia’s best chefs.
With a client list that includes some of Australia’s top chefs and a months-long wait list for her product, talented Canberra teen Leila Haddad has established herself as one of the most significant knife makers in Australia.
As a baby, Leila Haddad regularly crawled into her father Karim’s workshop and forge at their riverside home in the Tharwa Valley. Her first attempt at knife-making (under her dad’s guidance) was at age six. With a bit of help from Karim, Leila managed to heat a piece of steel to a blistering 1000 degrees centigrade before squashing it under a 30-tonne press. He may not have known it at the time, but this would be a seminal moment in his daughter’s life; fuelling the fire of on ongoing passion that would take her name all over the world.
“I remember going down to hang out in the forge when I was little,” Leila recalls. “Dad would help me get up on a little bucket so that I could reach the machine. It’s pretty loud in there, so he would have to yell out the instructions to me as I squashed the steel.”
Within the same year Leila had made her very first timber-handled knife, and now, at age 15, she’s built a reputation as one of the country’s best. Today, you’ll find her knives in the hands of staff at Neil
Perry’s Rockpool as well as on tables at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants number 32-ranked Attica in Melbourne, where diners can choose a favourite from the restaurant’s extensive set of Leila originals.
In 2014, Attica chef-patron Ben Shewry invited Leila to speak to a star-studded culinary audience at his WAW Gathering conference in Melbourne. Debating the importance of handmade objects in an increasingly automated world, the then 11-year-old Leila received a rapturous applause from some of the industry’s biggest names, endearing herself to what would become some of her most vocal supporters.
Today, the impressively composed Year 10 student has a waiting list of potential clients longer than her dad’s. When asked what separates her knives from those bought off the shelf, Leila says it’s the story behind each one that makes the difference.
“There is so much time and care taken at every step of the process,” she explains. “Each knife is very unique and is handcrafted over several days using different elements to customise the knife and to suit the hand of the person that it’s being made for.”
To Leila’s mind, if there’s one thing that a good knife needs to do it’s to work well. “A good knife should be built to last. You want to know that it’s not going to fall apart on you,” she says. “Especially if you’re a professional chef working with your knife every day. A good knife is something that is built for a purpose.”
Leila says it’s that very tangible connection with the end user that brings the greatest reward as a knife maker. “The thing I love the most about knife making is the fact that, at the end of it, someone is going to use the knife.”
“It's quite hard work to make a knife that not only works well but that looks nice and that I'm happy with,” she says. “But the fact that someone's going to take the knife home and keep using it for many years, that’s pretty special. It’s nice knowing that the knife is going to enter someone’s life and become a long-term part of it.”
While her knives are already selling for thousands of dollars apiece to collectors and chefs around the world, it’s clear to see that Leila is keen to keep life simple, like any regular teenager. “Knife making is definitely a big part of what I love, but I try and juggle it around other things like school and friends and sport,” she says.
While the future certainly looks bright for Leila Haddad, she says she’s not exactly sure what shape it might take just yet. She’s just focused on finishing Year 10 first. “I haven't really thought too much about years ahead,” she says with a casual shrug. “I’m just trying to live in the moment.”
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