Knife Work: Turning Japanese

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A Japanese knife primer, from Roel’s line-up (top to bottom): Boning, Petty, Suntuko, Deba, Demascus Gyuto and Carbon Steel Gyuto

Chefs and their knives. Certainly a topic taken seriously. A knife is a tool. It’s an appendage, an extension of a cook’s body and, as such, an expression of his or her personality.  A knife individuates.  This essential element pretty much dictates a cook’s ability to perform their job.  Knives are so ubiquitous in the kitchen, it often disappears into the daily fabric of life in the restaurant business. Focus your attention and you can’t go one second in our world without encountering a blade or two, even in our corporate office.

This isn’t not the first time we’ve wielded the “Chef Toys” category on the blog but it certainly deserves more attention.  On a recent rare morning visit to The Cypress Room, I happened upon chef de cuisine Roel Alcudia sharpening his set of Japanese knives.  There are different knives for different tasks.  There are brand and style preferences. But perhaps the most telling of all traits is their care.  A cook can have a great collection of carbon and stainless steel, but if not properly maintained they will quickly fail, from rust to uneven wear, and equally fail the ingredient meant for batonnet or brunoise, and ultimately the final product at the table.  Once a day, Roel works the soft side of his Togiharu sharpening stone. Once a month on the hard side. It’s a time to reset.

“I think about almost everything relevant in my life.  Paying bills, knocking out prep lists, menu ideas… It’s not unlike rolling out pasta. My mind just wanders.”

Take care of and protect your investments, the Korin website says.  Roel reminds me the honing blade is for just that and that alone – straightening the blade; it can dangerously wear down a knife if improperly (usually too frequently) used.

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In addition to their hardness, Japanese knives are in large part distinctive for their single bevel and its cutting performance suitable to traditional Japanese cuisine and its ingredients. “Yanagiba” is well designed for slicing and preparing the raw sashimi without loosing shape and freshness. The “Usuba” is suitable design for cutting, peeling, also thin and precise cutting for vegetables.  But it’s not so black and white.  As western culture and foods were brought to Japan beginning in the Meiji Period (late 1800s to early 1900s,) western-style European knives featuring the double bevel blade were brought to Japan to handle the cutting of meats. With increasing demand, Japanese knife makers have started to make western-style knives with the experience and techniques of Japanese sword-making and Japanese traditional-style knife-making. So where will our knife exploration lead next, with the chefs of Genuineland as our guides? We shall see, right Michael?!

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