It started with chives.
In 2006, as a young culinary-school student working an externship at Per Se, a four-star, $300-a-head (before wine) New York restaurant, Olivia Go was tasked with mincing the chives every morning. They had to be less than half a millimetre wide. They had to be cut uniformly and they had to be fluffy, so that they would scatter evenly over the restaurant’s signature salmon tartare and sweet onion crème fraîche cornets, instead of landing in sodden clumps.
But the ends of Go’s herbs turned dark and soggy. The chives’ flavour soured, from subtly oniony to acid heat and pong. She was still using her school knives then – the stainless-steel, German-style ones that were the standard-bearers at the time in most North American kitchens. She knew that it would not be long before the restaurant’s chefs threw her chives out.
In desperation, Go bought a Japanese knife. Japanese knives are thinner and lighter than German blades; the better ones are hand-forged and made from extra-hard steel strengthened with metals like molybdenum and nickel so that they can hold their edge longer. Those edges are often twice as fine as those on European knives. Though you can find very good ones for around $150, Japanese knives can easily cost double that, or far more.
Go learned how to keep her knife razor sharp, so that it fell through herbs and vegetables with almost zero effort – a great Japanese knife almost has its own gravity, she quickly realized. Her chives were perfect, her work became fast and precise, she thrived for the next two years in some of the planet’s most exacting kitchens.
As is rapidly becoming the case among elite-level kitchen professionals, German knives, with their quick-dulling edges and their built-for-obsolescence bolsters, which make precise sharpening a near-impossibility, were soon dead to her.
In just a few years, Japanese knives have become must-have tools in top Canadian restaurant kitchens, as well as among ambitious amateur cooks who see them being used on food television. Stores specializing in Japanese knives and sharpening have opened across Canada in the past five years. With Ivan Fonseca, who is also a chef, Go opened Tosho Knife Arts, one of two Japanese knife shops in Toronto. In Montreal, there’s a Japanese knife specialist called L’Émouleur, and one of the first dedicated Japanese knife shops in Canada, Calgary’s Knifewear (the shop carries knives from 40 different Japanese blacksmiths), has expanded in enormous leaps since it first opened. Knifewear now has a location in Kelowna, B.C., and has plans to expand to Edmonton and Vancouver in the next year, owner Kevin Kent said.
In many cases, you can see the results on dinner plates. Fish and rare meats hold their shape and texture and resist oozing when sliced with super-sharp cutlery (sushi chefs in North America were Japanese knives’ first emissaries), and vegetables can be cut to shapes and thicknesses that are all but impossible with German blades.
“I have a salad that’s 21 ingredients, they’re all julienned by hand, and I’m talking about three hairs, the thinness of the cuts,” said Antonio Park, a Japan-trained chef whose restaurant, Park, has been drawing raves since it opened in Montreal last spring. “I want to be able to see through them, and the vegetables have to be crispy,” he added.
In addition, every chef I spoke with cited the knives’ ability to slice herbs cleanly, so that they stayed fresher, longer, as a key benefit. (I tried it at home this past weekend. The difference is profound.)
And the definition of what is sharp continues to evolve.
Quality-focused chefs across the county now insist not just that their cooks own scary-sharp knives but that they keep them that way; where relatively coarse, 1,000-grit sharpening stones used to be the standard (that’s near the top level of what a typical German blade can handle), chefs such as Kyumin Hahn of Raymond’s in St. John’s polish their blades with 10,000-grit whetstones that are almost as smooth as marble, and brush them to a mirror finish on felt or leather strops.
Even the German knife companies are taking note. In 2007, Zwilling J.A. Henckels launched a line of Japanese-made cutlery. Wüsthof, another top German knife maker, has also introduced Japanese-style knives.
Douglas Chang, the chef de cuisine at 1892 in Vancouver’s members-only Terminal City Club, credited The Food Network and its ilk for some of Japanese knives’ emergence in Canada.
But like many others, Chang said the knives’ popularity here is also a result of cross-pollination with top restaurants in New York and abroad, and the constant push at the top level for firmer, truer, cleaner textures in food. When he first started as a chef in Toronto seven years ago, few of the cooks he worked with had any idea how to care for their knives, and for the most part they used German ones. “A store like Tosho wouldn’t have survived seven years ago,” he said.
Chang spent a year and a half at Eleven Madison Park in New York, where the situation was radically different. The chef there would often feel his cook’s knives to test them for sharpness. “Your knife wasn’t sharp unless it was razor sharp,” Chang said.
When he returned to Canada, he saw how the situation here had begun to change, particularly in Toronto. Great knives, maintained well, became a symbol of fastidiousness and pride.
In Calgary, Kent’s clientele has expanded in the past few years from predominantly professionals to predominantly amateurs – home cooks who want what he calls “the chef experience.”
Though you can find an excellent, hand-forged Japanese knife for around the same price as a factory-made German one, they can get expensive fast: The sky’s the limit, particularly for the ones that are made of layered Damascus steel, or that still bear the blacksmith’s hammer marks, or are polished with images of cherry blossoms – what Kent calls “sexy-as-hell knives.”
Steve Gonzalez, a Toronto chef who was a contestant on the first season of Top Chef Canada, got a $1,200, 42-inch slicer as a gift recently. He loves it, but he also admitted there are limited opportunities to use such an enormous blade.
So what’s it for, then, I asked him.
“You can scare people with it,” he said, laughing. “You can scare people, big-time.”