There’s one thing you never ever do when you’re working in a kitchen: borrow another chef’s knife. The narrowing of eyes, often followed by yelling, and the heinous retribution will ensure that you won’t ever make that mistake again. The personal knife of a chef is a jealously guarded tool, the personification of their toil, sweat, and tears.
It is no surprise that when a chef decides to buy a new knife they tend to obsess over it. It has to be functional; a chef with a knife that doesn’t cut is like a Ken doll, useless. It has to be beautiful bordering on pornographic: shiny, unique, and desirable. Most of all, it has to be personal, something that reflects the soul of the wielder.
Catering to these desires is Kevin Kent and his shop Knifewear. Located in Inglewood, Calgary, Alberta, he offers enticingly sharp and sexy handmade knives to chefs, food lovers, and anyone who has a deep appreciation of a traditional hand crafted art.
Kevin himself knows the obsessions of the chef world all too well. Having worked at restaurants in Canada, throughout the Middle East, and Europe, he eventually found himself at the venerable St. John in London as the sous chef for Fergus Henderson, the progenitor of nose-to-tail eating. Fergus’ influence can be found all over the world today. Even infamous Canadian institutions Joe Beef and Au Pied de Cochon can attribute their offal menus favourites inspiration derived from St. John. Kevin still shows an affinity for offal eating as our conversation derailed every 15 or 20 minutes as we mulled over the wonders of bacon, deep fried tripe, liver and onions, and various tasty, but not often served dishes.
Kevin’s fascination with knives started in 1999 when he got his first Japanese knife. It was an eye opening experience for him. It was sharper than anything else that was available, and it kept its edge for longer. He immediately replaced all his knives with Japanese knives. When he returned to Canada in 2006 he found that there were no supply shops in the country that could supply knives of that standard. He established contacts in Japan through his connections in London, started importing knives, and started selling them to other chefs to, “…fund my own knife buying habit”.
Like an underground dealer, he would often get a call and show up with a backpack full of knives to the back door of a kitchen or office and ply his coveted wares to chefs needing a knife fix. The leap to a full fledge business was realized when the Calgary Herald did a quick overview of his knives around Christmas time and published his number. An increasing number of calls and growing demand for his knives forced him to open a small shop, and then a progressively larger one. In the span of a few years he was working with his Japanese network to design, market, and sell handmade Japanese knives worldwide.
Asked why he thinks there is such a demand for his knives Kevin mused, “Cooking is really cool right now… it’s like the new rock and roll. If you have a poor quality tool that you needed to use every day, it’s infuriating… If you go home every day, and watch the food channel, you read your cook books, you’re looking at all this food porn, and then you want to cook; you grab your old knife that can’t cut anything and all of a sudden you’re going to be turned off of cooking. ”
“It’s also the appeal of the handmade.” Kevin continues, “We live in a society where everything is made in factories in far off lands… everything is cheap and nothing has soul anymore. A handmade Japanese knife is made by a blacksmith. It’s made by a man with a hammer, anvil, and fire and he bashes out a knife… If you pull out 10 knifes from one of our lines, they’re going to be 10 individual knives. Each one is different. There’s a bit of art, a bit of history and a bit of je ne sais quoi… It’s like a Harry Potter moment when the wand chooses them. The knife chooses them, and customers respond to that.”
Knifewear carries over 25 different lines of knives including beloved chef staples like the stainless steel Globals and Tojiros, progressing in sharpness to near super exotic levels in the hand forged Koishi and Fujiwara lines. There are an abundance of shapes and size that are available to suit any application. A quick wander through the Knifewear collection also reveals some very specialized knives, most interesting among them; a traditional soba noodle knife which is designed to put even pressure across the entire blade to maintain a consistent cut across sheets of dough, and a 3 foot maguro knife which is often mistaken for a small sword, which is used to take apart whole tuna fish.
When pondering over the selection of knives, customers often fall to common fallacies, “People think a knife has to be heavy. I‘d argue a knife has to be sharp. The truth is that the thinner the blade, the lighter the knife, and the sharper it will be. Think razor blade versus axes. Axes are heavy, not terribly sharp; razor blades are light and very sharp.”
The sharpness of a knife is highly dependent on the type of steel that is used. High carbon steels such as Super Aogami “super blue steel” which is a high carbon/tungsten steel mix, or Shirogami “white carbon” steel which is a much purer form of high carbon steel, tends to produce the highest sharpness knives. Although the high carbon steel is hard and will hold edges well, they are delicate and will rust quickly if wet, and are prone to chipping when dropped.
Stainless steel blades come in a variety of blends, the most common being VG10, SRS15, and molybdenum steel. They are much easier to care for but are not as hard, do not get as sharp, or hold their edge as well as high carbon blades. Many people prefer to use these blades because they require less pampering than high carbon blades. They resist rust when exposed to water, and are less likely to chip or fracture when dropped.
Even with the same materials, different blacksmiths, different forging techniques, and different production methods will yield different final results. While technically, all blades from the same material may be very similar to each other; the wielder may notice a subjective difference when using one versus another. “Often someone in the shop will narrow it down to five different knives, made with different materials, by different blacksmiths, and they choose the one that is most appealing to them” Kevin points out.
Knifewear’s ever growing staff all share the same passion for these beautiful knives. Naoto, a former sushi chef, comes from Wakayama in the Kansai area, which is well known for great food. Kasumi who hails from Tokyo keeps everyone in check with an unassuming look, and awesome bagels and ice cream. Any chef with a moustache like Rob’s deserves respect, especially with the precision in which he wields a blade during their in-house knife classes. The real rock and roll member of this team is Mark; how can you argue with a drummer that drinks Guinness? The newest addition to the team is Mike, a transplanted chef and kilt aficionado.
Even if it is your first time visiting the shop, the staff will be more than glad to grab a number of different knives from the wall, put them in your hand, and get you cutting tomatoes and potatoes to demonstrate the difference a great knife can make. The difference in speed, safety, and satisfaction is instantly realized when you can effortlessly glide through a potato in a single clean stroke instead of endlessly sawing back and forth while trying not to remove parts of your hand the process.
Knifewear isn’t just about knives however. They take the rock star attitude past knives and into other parts of the kitchen. Knifewear beer is the latest example of their foray into all things food. Tongue Cutter IPA is an amazingly bitter 80 IBU IPA thought up by the Knifewear crew and brewed by the masters at Beer Revolution. Like all good ideas, Tongue Cutter was thought up over a night of obsessing about finely honed edges, and a few pints. The debut of Tongue Cutter IPA coincides with the launch of a new line of knives on February 21. Beer and sharp objects, what can possibly go wrong?
If you’re not in the mood for kitchen knives, they also carry a selection of hunting knives made using the same steel and process. Food porn aficionados can also get their fix with rare cook books and magazines. If you have a facial growth problem, they stock a number of high end razors, brushes, and soaps to help you become as smooth as a management consultant’s PowerPoint deck. Or, if you just need a knife sharpened by hand, they will do that for you while you browse.
Needless to say, Knifewear is an essential stop for chefs, food lovers, and lovers of sharp objects. If you find yourself in desperate need of an extra sharp knife, but are a bit short on cash and have some rock star skills, trying picking up Toru’s bass guitar from the wall and hammering out an awesome riff for a discount. However, if you play “Smoke on the Water” the price goes up. Consider yourself warned.
1316-9 Ave SE, Calgary, Alberta
Kelowna and Vancouver locations opening soon!