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Knife nerd Add to ...

Kevin Kent puts a sleek Japanese number in my hand the moment I walk through the door. He does this with every customer, because he knows that's where the addiction starts.

"Don't talk, just cut," he says, slivering a potato into papery slices, then micro-julienne strips, while launching into tangents about Japanese folded steel, the Rockwell hardness scale, Yanagiba versus Kaisaiki slicers, and the families of artisan knife makers who have been crafting these precision tools in Japan for centuries.

The beautiful Ohishi Tsuchime I'm wielding is sharper than anything I've ever used before.

I draw the blade effortlessly through a tomato, creating a perfect slice, then another. The knife is light, the stroke is smooth and silky - I'm hooked.

Sharp steel is Kevin Kent's calling and he's religiously spreading the word at his Calgary hamono-ya (knife shop), Knifewear. He's the city's - and possibly Canada's - great prophet of Japanese knives. This is the high-performance stuff: the kind of hand-crafted, precision blades that have morphed over centuries from samurai swords to kitchen tools (and range in price from about $75 to $1,000).

On knifeforums.com, the Web forum for "intelligent knife discussion," Mr. Kent has been called Canada's answer to Dave Martell, the revered sharpening expert in the world of high-calibre knives. His customers are no less admiring. Chef Justin Leboe, of Calgary's upscale Rush restaurant, says Mr. Kent's shop is equal to any he's seen in New York or Japan. He estimates the chefs in his kitchen own "20 or 30" knives purchased from Mr. Kent.

Mr. Kent was a chef, too, until his knife habit took hold.

The self-described culinary "idiot savant" studied at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology culinary program in Calgary, where he graduated as the top apprentice, despite an admittedly debauched college lifestyle. His cooking career took him from top restaurants in London (he was sous chef at St. John under nose-to-tail guru Fergus Henderson) to Calgary's River Café.

But his addiction to sharp soon eclipsed working behind the stoves.

"I met a Japanese knife maker in London and he turned me on to high performance knives," he says.

Back in Canada, Mr. Kent couldn't find a source of the Japanese "super blue steel" knives that he loved. So he began to import a few from his London mentor, hauling them around in a backpack and showing them to local chefs. Last year he hung up his whites to open this knife-lover's nirvana.

"I never tried Japanese knives until buying them from Kevin," says chef Paul Rogalski of Calgary's Rouge restaurant, "but I absolutely love them. He's passionate about these knives and they are all pieces of art, functional pieces of art."

The difference between Japanese and European knives is the steel - the former made with harder steel that can be sharpened to a finer edge that stays sharp longer. The trade-off is strength and durability. While never as sharp, softer steel is more flexible and less likely to break.

Still, knife enthusiasts are drawn to the pure precision that comes with sharper Japanese blades.

Many of Mr. Kent's Japanese knives are made of folded steel, a technique not unlike making puff pastry, which creates a rippled watermark pattern he describes as "waves striking the beach at moonlight." Others have carbon steel cores, sandwiched in stainless Damascus steel.

Mr. Kent tosses back his mop of jet black hair and lifts a handmade chef's knife reverentially from a shallow glass case lined with polished blades.

"I'm going to get a tattoo of this knife," he says, holding a large, hand-hammered Aogami steel blade created by Shosui Takeda, still blackened from the forge. "It's sharp and black and scary. I love it." He already sports a tattoo of a fish skeleton where a wedding band might be

With its striking red walls, graphic Japanese imagery and 15 metres of glass-topped cases displaying an impressive collection of knives from 25 Japanese artisan makers, Mr. Kent's hamono-ya is like a jewellery store for sharpened steel. Some customers who stumble upon the long, narrow store along the city's historic Inglewood shopping strip ask if it's a museum.

"I'm trying to do things differently," he says. "Make the shop more of an event, a place to hang out and learn about knives."

Calgary chefs do make a point of showing up just to hang out and test drive Kent's unique knives.

"Some days I go to Kevin's shop and just cut stuff," says Nectar chef Rebekah Pearce. "It's meditative."

Mr. Leboe, a knife collector who first encountered Japanese knives in Vancouver, when working with Opus Hotel chef and Japanese knife lover Don Letendre, recalls watching Thomas Keller at The French Laundry at Napa cutting fish with surgical precision using his own custom-made, Japanese knives.

"These knives are nice, but actually learning how they should be used, perfecting the Japanese technique and hand control of these knives, is what's amazing," says Mr. Leboe.

Knife addicts come in from all walks of life, Mr. Kent says: chefs, serious home cooks, people who appreciate good tools, technical types like engineers. They buy, sell and trade knives online, and talk about sharpening tricks with the kind of passion others reserve for expensive cars and fine wine.

As the sharp blade in my hand renders another vegetable into papery slices, I understand why owning one could lead to a full-blown knife habit.

"I have a problem," Mr. Kent admits, surveying his knife-obsessed world. "I developed a taste for exquisite knives. Look what happened."

 

Caring for carvers

Kevin Kent's advice:

Wash it, dry it - immediately.Never put precision knives in the dishwasher. Dishwashing chemicals and heat will damage the fine edge and harm the handle.If your knife is pure carbon steel, it will rust. In humid climates, rub the blade with food grade mineral oil or camellia oil. Always use a wooden or high density plastic cutting board (never cut on glass, granite or  Arborite). Don't use a Japanese knife to cut through bones, blocks of chocolate, winter squash or frozen food.

The steel is hard and sharp, but it's brittle and can break or chip. Don't bend or twist the blade. Have your knives professionally sharpened once or twice every year. Hone the edge between sharpenings on a leather strap (sharpening steels are only safe to use on softer, European steel knives). Test-drive a knife before you buy. It's all about geometry: A tall person and a short person will prefer different knives.

JAPANESE KNIVES 101

Want to know more before you buy? Here's a primer.

Steel: The steel alloys used in Japanese knives range from VG10 (a high carbon "super steel" that's less brittle than many); powder steel or high speed steel (extremely hard, used for dentist drills, needs to be "babied"); carbon steel (easy to sharpen but turns black over time and will rust); blue steel or Ao-ko (carbon steel combined with chromium and tungsten), rust resistant and #2 blue steel is most durable.

Rockwell Hardness Scale: This is the scale used to determine the hardness of steel. A good European knife blade has a hardness of about 56-57, while Japanese blades range from 62-65. Blades at the high end hold an edge longer but are harder to sharpen and more fragile.

Japanese knife styles: The Santoku is the all-purpose Japanese chef's knife. The Guyoto ("cow sword") is a longer, slicing knife. Small knives are called petty/utility or paring knives. The Nakiri is a large, square-bladed knife for chopping vegetables/onions. The traditional Japanese blades (bevelled on one side only) include Usuba (flat like Nakiri for vegetables); Yanagiba (long, narrow slicer for sashimi); Kaisaiki (a shorter Yanagiba); and Deba ("short, fat tooth" shape for fish filleting and cutting meat).

Japanese Knive Makers: Kevin Kent imports knives from 25 Japanese knife makers. He recommends the surgically-sharp Artisan to chefs, but he's also keen on the hand-forged and hammered super hard (63:65) knives from Takeda Shosui-san and the Moritaka knives, made by the same family for 31 generations, since 1293. A collectible knife in his shop is a numbered edition from master Keijiro Doi, a 300 mm Yanagiba Suisin Hayate with ebony and water buffalo horn handle ($912).

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