Aside from a solid foundation of strong ingredient knowledge and culinary technique, cooks in all levels of the restaurant profession know they need a reliable knife.
Calgary’s Kevin Kent has built his entire career around just that: finding some of the best knives the world has to offer by way of Japan and helping Canadians discover the length and breadth of the knife world. In other words, he’s a knife nerd.
In the late 1990s, Mr. Kent was working as a chef in England at London’s St. John Restaurant. One day, while exploring a tradeshow at a restaurant convention, he happened upon a small booth with a man offering up a small selection of beautifully hand-crafted Japanese steel kitchen knives.
“I had always owned other types of knives and was happy with them, but this was a moment like when you think your Volkswagen is an awesome car and then you get to test-drive a Porsche,” says Mr. Kent, recalling his first discovery. “That really opened my eyes. I bought the knife on the spot. Now, almost 20 years later it’s framed in my Calgary store.”
Since that moment in 1999, Mr. Kent has become arguably the most well-known knife-shop owner in the country. His first Knifewear store opened in February, 2008 in the trendy Calgary neighbourhood of Inglewood. Today, he owns he has six Knifewear locations across Canada in Ottawa, Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary, as well as the offshoot boutique chain Kent of Inglewood, which has four locations.
“Walk into one of our shops and you’ll find tomatoes, potatoes and carrots waiting on the counter. When you’re [thinking about] buying a knife, you try cutting something,” Mr. Kent explains. “You’ll see people have that same moment that I had. They usually get really excited.”
The Knifewear shops in particular are where Mr. Kent’s obsession with Japanese-made knives run rampant. Display cases line the room and offer up everything from small and humble paring knives to long, slender sujihikis (typically used to slice raw meats) that boast cherrywood handles and blades with striking, shimmering designs created by a blacksmith’s hammer.
Santoku, sujihiki, gyutou, nakiri, yanagi and usuba – all Japanese names for types of knives – roll off the tongue of Mr. Kent while he explains why he has delved deep into the exploration of Japanese knife-making after multiple trips to Japan. It’s hard not to get drawn in by this storyteller vividly describing the labour-intensive work of the Japanese men and women he’s watched for hours.
Frequent trips to Japan have helped the Knifewear owner develop strong bonds with many ironsmiths and further understand their processes. He says that meeting with one blacksmith years ago and establishing a relationship led to another and another and another. In recent years, Mr. Kent has flown in a variety of master Japanese blacksmiths to do pop-up events at his stores to show Canadians firsthand the art of knife-making and sharpening. This summer, Shibata-san, Ikeda-san and Kato-san of Masakage Knives and Kotetsu Knives were a few of the “knife rockstars” he toured across Canada.
“Every time we bring blacksmiths to Canada, customers go crazy. It’s like a rock show. It’s almost like when The Beatles first came to America,” he says as he laughs. “I think it’s really important to bring [professionals such as Sibata-san] and show people what’s going on in the world of Japanese knife-making.”
This immense and genuine love for the craft of knife-making has lead Mr. Kent to publish his first book. The Knifenerd Guide To Japanese Knives was published at the end of October and is meant to be both a love letter to the people behind the centuries old craft of knife-making, and also something that is informative and inspiring.
In 2016, with almost 20 years of yearning to understand more about this art, he started working on the book, coming up with an index, then compiling the profiles of different Japanese blacksmiths while visiting Japan.
“I started to really buckle down in middle of January, 2018. The book wasn’t progressing as fast as I wanted to so I took a really quick trip to Japan and that helped me finish my draft,” Mr. Kent explains. “I just wrote about everything I saw, smelled, heard and felt. There is such a passion in the creation of these types of knives and I wanted to capture that.”
Mr. Kent has just wrapped a small book tour across the country and says the feedback has been positive. His guide is available at all shop locations in Canada as well as via online retailers such as Amazon and is already looking at a second run. If that’s not enough, there are a couple more potential Knifewear locations on the horizon as he eyes the Toronto market as well as Kyoto, Japan.
So, after all of these years of learning, travelling and slicing, what really is the perfect knife?
“You know, it’s kind of like the perfect painting. If there was one, everybody would have it. Everybody likes something different. Think about musicians and their guitars – is there a perfect one of those? No, because everybody has got a different view of what they want.”