What started out as a simple hobby creating a bag for his good knives has turned into a booming business for Ali Loukzada, an executive chef who has worked at many of the top restaurants in New York City.
The co-owner of Boldric, whose brother, and partner, does all the manufacturing in India, now designs not only beautiful knife bags but aprons and gym and tote bags that are prized wherever he sells them.
Ali Loukzada, who now runs the cafe at the Rubin Museum in Manhattan, started out as a young boy in the culinary world in India, where he was born and raised. “I began cooking in school programs,” he says. “I had a choice, either computer science or the culinary arts, and I decided I wanted to do the latter. So I started making some of my mom’s recipes at the schools. I learned from my mom how to cook (I serve one of her meals in my cafe) and at 17, when I moved to the U.S., the first thing I did was to check out culinary schools. Everyone in India wants you to be a doctor or engineer, it's super-common over there. But I wanted to be a chef.”
Graduating in 1999, Loukzada went looking for a job. But his career didn't take the ordinary route. “My first job was at Le Zinc,” he recalls. “It was very famous back then. I worked there on weekends because I had a full-time job as a runner at Pershing Square in Manhattan. I worked as a runner for four years and then I went to work at Le Zinc full-time, and from there, I got a real good opportunity and started at Tabla, Danny Meyer's restaurant, where I worked for 2 ½ years.”
While at Pershing Square, going to culinary school and doing his internship at Le Zinc, Loukzada moved up to line cook, then sous chef. “I moved to Tabla for 2 ½ years and then I became a sous chef there, and went on to Steven Starr restaurants and was at Buddakan for six years as a sous chef in New York as well,” he says.
Here's where the knife bags come in. “On one of my trips to India I wanted to make myself a bag,” Loukzada says. “I ended up making a knife bag. I designed it over there, sitting down, in a room. I didn't know if my knives would fit because I didn't have them with me, so I bought one and then brought the bag back to the U.S., and a bunch of my coworkers were super-impressed. They all said, 'I want one of those,' and it actually started, word-of-mouth. Franklin Becker bought one of my bags and tweeted about it. All my friends started buying these bags.”
Because he'd been able to make the bags at low cost, he only charged $250.00 per bag. “And I made $2,500!” he says. “That's how we launched our site. It wasn't even much until I got some feedback from other people, and friends giving me ideas, and I started working on new designs. I left Buddakan, in 2011, and that's when I went to Starr and I'm still there, the executive chef at the Rubin Museum. It's an Indian-inspired menu, since I am Indian and trained in Indian food. We do very laid-back comfort foods, in a very clean, flavor-driven way.”
Loukzada's original product was a 17-pocket knife bag, handmade in water buffalo leather, and then, in collaboration with his brother, a one-buckle version was created. “I went back to India and this time I took my knives with me so we could measure all the bags up so they could handle the width, and we looked at the different materials I could use, and came up with this very chic bag,” he says. “It has a good price point, not too high, and that was the second bag.”
Why stop there? The brothers went to work on a third bag. “This one was a little cheaper,” he says. “What you see now is a different bag, but we decided to make a tie version, a Japanese-style bag, because I shopped at Japanese knife shops and they're very expensive so I wanted to keep them in something that's worth the dollars that I paid for the knives,” Loukzada says. “It used to be two ties but now it's a Double D hook. It's got seven pockets and I designed it for what someone can afford who's just starting out, because I've been there. I was a runner, a bus boy, a line cook, a prep cook. I knew what I could afford down the line. But I wanted to build a line from highly-priced down to the least expensive, $50 for a six-pocket bag.”
Loukzada got his first big break at the International Housewares Show in Chicago. “We got some super good feedback. JB Prince saw us and, along with Bowery Kitchen supply, was the first to sign us on. They said they'd give us a shot and they’ve been our hugest supporters. I'm a local chef from New York who's done this stuff in the area. If New Yorkers won't support me, who will? That's how we started.”
He looks back on his experience in New York with wonder. “It's amazing. I was just a teenager when I came here and I didn't think I would be doing any of this stuff,” he says. “I started from scratch, washing dishes and running food and to work at some of the best restaurants in New York, maybe the country, to be here doing my own thing, it's unbelievable.”
Now the company has moved over into aprons. “I have worn a million aprons throughout my career, and I know how they start out and at times how bad they could be,” he says. “It's due to the material, the strap, how thin it is, how it digs into your belly as you stand there all night. That needed to be changed.”
Another flaw in the aprons he was forced to fix was having the pockets in the back, rather than in the front, where they could be much more useful. “You have your side towels, your napkins, and you're wiping your hands on them. Everything you do, they get drenched in water, and they're dragging your entire apron down, hurting your neck because it's dragging that down, too,” he says. “So I decided to put a D hook on your right side, and weave your napkin through it and tie a knot in it. And the two lap pockets? When I used to be a cook, I knew people who put spoons in their back pockets. That was pretty gross. Then they put their towels on the belly so they looked pregnant. They would only get a limited amount of towels a day so, not to lose them, they would stuff them up inside the belly of the apron. I decided to make a way to put a side towel in the two lap pockets. If they stay in the front, you can put your spoons, your side towels in front, and with an adjustable strap on your neck, you're all set. They're small features but they really help.”
Tweezers for garnishing can go on top in the pocket, while pens and notepads can also rest there. “For a restaurant owner, that's a real opportunity to make waiters more efficient. And when the health inspector comes in and says, ‘what's going on with these aprons,' that's never a good thing. This way you don't have to worry,” he says.
Loukzada says he even has a friend in California who makes handcrafted knives from scratch and the business uses his aprons to protect the employees when grinding and sharpening their knives.
The whole operation has become a family affair. When thousands of yards of canvas were left over last year, that inspired Louksada to think about different designs. He came up with ones for jujitsu, in which he competes, and boxing, and then a gym bag, while the tote bag was his wife's idea. “We all chipped in with different ideas, and that's how we branched out,” he says. “I know the bags are great. We get feedback every single day.”
For more information on Boldric’s knife bags, aprons, knives, and other accessories, please visit www.boldric.com or call 1-844-265-3742.