If you’re not a chef, culinary school student, or avid home cook, Messermeister might be new to you. Translating from German to “knife master,” the company produces traditionally crafted yet innovatively designed knives from forging factories around the world: beefy German and sleek Japanese classics; wood-handled beauties from Italian olive and California walnut burl; and, just two years ago, the world’s first-ever, full-sized folding chef’s knife.
If you fancy yourself competent in the kitchen, it’s okay to feel a little embarrassed for not having heard of Messermeister until now — I certainly did. But prepare for more self-reflection about how this brand slid beneath your scope for so long: The company is 40 years old, headquartered in Ojai, and run by two sisters, Chelcea Dressler-Crowley and Kirsten Dressler Wilson, who are carrying on the tradition launched by their parents back in 1981.
“It’s very rare,” confirmed Kirsten when I asked whether there are many other family-owned, globally sourcing kitchen knife companies out there, as that market seems dominated by massive companies like Cuisinart and Zwilling J.A. Henckels. “And for two women to be in this business?” she asked. “For sure. It’s a very male-dominated industry.”
Messermeister was started by their dad, Bernd Dressler, who was born in Germany, raised in Australia, and moved to California in his twenties. While working as a waiter in Los Angeles, he was hired to sell Henckels knives because he could speak German and soon realized that he could be working directly with factories himself.
“When my father was a sales rep, he was hearing ideas from chefs and customers about things that they didn’t like about traditional German knives,” said Chelcea. For instance, the traditional bolster — which is the thick neck at the bottom of certain blades — was getting in the way of sharpening the heel. Meanwhile, Japanese knives were coming into vogue, and chefs wanted edge guards and special luggage to carry their steel as well.
“The big German knife companies weren’t interested in going in those directions,” said Chelcea. “They were very firm on their beliefs and ideas on what a German knife should be. That gave my father the opportunity to explore different ideas.”
So with his wife (and their mom), Debra Dressler, Bernd began importing knives from Germany and Japan in 1981, and then evolved into Messermeister in 1985 when their own designs hit the market. They moved to Ojai the next year, when the girls were about kindergarten age, and grew the business over the years, finding particular fans among mom ’n’ pop cutlery stores and culinary schools.
In 2002, while the sisters were in college, Bernd died of a heart attack at age 62. When they graduated, they joined Messermeister to help their mom, who was running day-to-day operations. (Debra is still very involved as the company’s president.) Kirsten took on marketing, and Chelcea worked in sales, first in Northern California and then national. About three years ago, they became vice presidents and started moving the company into a brighter, more public future.
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“We’re proud of our German heritage and how the company started, but now we make knives all over the world,” said Kirsten, explaining that China is now a major producer in addition to the traditional countries. “It just depends on where we can get the best knives made. Not all knife factories can do everything.”
Celebrity chefs are major fans, including Rick Bayless, who has Messermeister in his home kitchen block, and Gordon Ramsay, who’s used Messermeister on his cooking show, unbeknownst to the sisters until they were tipped off. They also have chefs as brand ambassadors — watch for more prominent partnerships in 2022 — but not in the typical pay-to-say sense.
“Those relationships are more organic,” said Chelcea. “We’re not interested in paying chefs. It’s more of a family relationship, where both parties are contributing ideas and going from there.” Added Kirsten, “We’re not just handing knives to chefs and putting their names on it. They’re very involved in the design process.”
How did we miss them for so long? “We like to fly under the radar,” admitted Chelcea. But they’re finally ready to break that tradition by opening a showroom in Ojai next year, where they’ll host cooking classes and launch parties while further engaging with the greater community.
Today, Messermeister sells more than 500 different products — mostly knives, but also sharpening tools, carrying cases, cutting boards, cool clothing, and much more. They recommend starting with one of their top-selling chef’s knives, like the eight-inch Oliva, but explained that the folding versions and large cleavers are also hot this season. “A lot of masculine butcher knives are popular right now because barbecuing is so hot,” said Kirsten.
But the choice is really up to each individual cook. “Everybody’s technique is so different,” said Chelcea. “People gravitate toward different sizes and what’s in their comfort level. Sharp knives intimidate a lot of people.”
As to whether the sisters themselves ever plan to fire up a forge and handcraft their own knives, they’re reactions are mixed. “I have the bug,” said Kirsten, who recently read about a rental house where they teach you to make a knife.
Chelcea is less interested. “I have too many other things to do,” she laughed, before adding a caveat. “We aren’t pounding them out, but knowing the metals and the handle materials, I feel like we are making knives.”