The Cutting Edge
Words by Ethan Kawasaki Photographs by Alpha Smoot Styling by Kendra Smoot
Treated carefully, a quality Japanese chef knife can be an extension of its owner and have a personality of its own. Here, a knife owner discusses the significance of managing the proper blade.
I received my first Japanese knife when I was 15, as a gift from my father when he took me on a trip to San Francisco. We went to a knife shop in Japantown where my dad got a yanagi and I got an usuba. As I became a more dedicated cook and eventually a chef, he passed his yanagi on to me, and while it is not the most versatile of knives, it is still a cherished piece in my collection. I have since purchased many more knives, but my favorite and the one I use nearly every day is a Western-style gyutou that I purchased in Japan. A knife has this strange ability to develop its own personality—you get to know your knife after hours and hours of use over many years. The way you sharpen it and the way the metal wears and oxidizes all contribute to the way it cuts and feels in your hand.
The knife is unequivocally the most important tool in the kitchen: It is an icon in the culinary arts. Cooks get them tattooed on their bodies. You don’t touch another cook’s knives. A knife is one of the only tools professional chefs and cooks bring with them to their jobs, and cooking almost always begins with cutting. Whether you are slicing through pieces of delicate buttery hamachi or making a mirepoix for a stock, the first step is to take food and break it down into more manageable sizes using a knife. They say your end product will only be as good as your first step. If your knife is of poor quality, it will only do a great disservice to the food and the final result. When a tomato is at the pinnacle of ripeness, fresh off the vine and still warm from the sun, a dull knife will do nothing but mash and bruise the flesh, whereas a surgically sharp blade will glide through, leaving you with juicy, glistening slices of vibrant red, green or yellow tomato.
There are few hand tools that are as visually striking as Japanese knives, from the rich marbled Damascus steel and beautiful straight lines to the warm wooden handles and natural horn or bone bolsters. Japanese knives are made using forging techniques deeply rooted in the same process that has been used to make samurai swords for centuries; no other knife will be as sharp or cut as precisely and cleanly as a well- maintained Japanese knife.
The Japanese are known for sparing no attention to detail, and this strict discipline is clearly evident in their cuisine. As this food culture has evolved, master knife craftsmen have developed a vast array of knives, many of them designed for just one specific task in the kitchen. This expansive menagerie of knives really shows the love and respect the Japanese have for their food, the ingredients and the land the ingredients come from.
My love for food runs deep, and with that, so too does my passion for knives and all that they offer and symbolize: being an artisan and transforming raw ingredients into something visually appealing and nourishing for the soul and body.
Ethan Kawasaki is currently the corporate chef for Cafe Zupas based in Sandy, Utah. Before he attended culinary school, he learned to love cooking from an early age (his mom passed away when he was six) while cooking with his father.