When Kevin Kent returned to Calgary in 2007 after spending a few years as sous-chef at St. John, an award-winning restaurant in London, his grand plan was to open a couple of restaurants back home.
The restaurants, however, never materialized: Japanese knives got in the way.
Kent’s obsession with Japanese knives can be traced back to a trade fair he went to while living in London. Kent happened upon a Japanese knife maker and struck up conversation, explaining that he was a chef, before slipping in that he kept his knives “razor sharp.”
The knife maker offered Kent the opportunity to try his knives and Kent was immediately hooked.
“It’s like that moment when you’ve always had an entry-level Toyota, and then you drive a (Nissan) GT-R one day and you go ‘Whoa, this is not the same thing!'” recalls Kent in a telephone interview from Calgary, where he is based.
On moving back to Calgary, Kent had built up a small collection of Japanese knives from his time in London. Through a Japanese contact in London, he began importing knives to Canada. Initially, his plan was to sell enough Japanese knives so that he could buy more for himself. So he started out small and nimble, cycling between restaurants, selling the knives out of his backpack and spreading the gospel of Japanese knives — namely that they’re the sharpest knives in the world.
Fast forward 10 years and Kent’s chain, Knifewear, is spread across Canada with stores in Calgary, Vancouver, Ottawa and Edmonton. Short term ambitions include opening a shop in Toronto, while in the long term, he’d like to open in Kyoto too.
Kent visits Japan about three times a year to meet with blacksmiths and has conveyed this experience into a book.
You won’t be surprised to learn that his debut book — “The Knifenerd Guide to Japanese Knives” — is an ode to Japanese knives. But more than that, it’s also an exploration of the culture of knife making in Japan, and a tribute to the “faceless” blacksmiths who shape, bend and sharpen the metal into some of the most highly sought-after knives in the world.
“The (aim of the) book, in my mind, was to tell the romantic story of the blacksmith,” said Kent. “I think these blacksmiths in Japan are just seen as welders, but customers in my shops, they get so excited when these guys come to town. We tend to see them as rock stars or artists.”
In the book, Kent and photographer Visti Kjar profile more than 20 knife makers, including one of the few women making knives in Japan, Sayaka Kouda at Tojiro Co. Ltd in Niigata Prefecture, as well as blacksmiths such as the Moritaka family in Kyushu who have been making knives from more than 700 years, or 27 generations.
The evocatively illustrated book also manages to be informative and educational without being preachy. For more than a decade, Kent and his staff have been educating chefs and home cooks on the array of Japanese knives and their maintenance. That knowledge has been distilled into the back section of the book, which covers the different types of Japanese knives, which to buy and how to care for them. The nerdiness mentioned in the title is there, but in small and informative doses, such as the “recipe” to make steel, but Kent keeps the tone conversational and lively throughout.
And as to why Japanese knives, especially handmade knives, have become so popular overseas?
“There’s not many times in your life, at least in North America, that you get to use something everyday that’s handmade by a master craftsman,” says Kent.
And now with his book, you can get up and close to these heavy metal stars.
“The Knifenerd Guide to Japanese Knives” will be published via Long Ladder Media in October.