‘Knife nerd’ looks to Ja­pan to find the per­fect blade

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - ALBERTA - DAN CLAPSON

Shop owner Kevin Kent shares his ob­ses­sion for Ja­panese-made knives with Cana­di­ans

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 Bri­tain at Lon­don’s St. John Restau­rant. One day, while ex­plor­ing a trade show at a restau­rant con­ven­tion, he hap­pened upon a small booth with a man of­fer­ing up a small se­lec­tion of beau­ti­fully hand­crafted 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 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 la- bour-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 rock stars” 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 with a laugh. “I think it’s re­ally im­por­tant to bring [pro­fes­sion­als such as Shi­bata-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 print 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.”


Knifewear owner Kevin Kent, seen at his store in Van­cou­ver on Wed­nes­day, has forged strong bonds with many iron­smiths in Ja­pan through fre­quent trips to the coun­try. He has even flown in a va­ri­ety of mas­ter Ja­panese black­smiths to do pop-up events at his stores.

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