“The knife is the first and oldest tool of mankind. Without the knife there would be no hunter-gatherers. Without it, in order to hunt you’d have to jump on the back of an animal and use your teeth. So the allure of a knife - it’s primeval. And it’s instinctive - if you cut something soft, like fish, you pull a knife towards you, and if you cut something hard you push it away.”
So says Jay Patel, the Director of Japanese Knife Company, and a man as passionate as he is erudite on the subject of blades. He’s expounding upon the virtues of owning a good kitchen knife: “When you combine that primeval instinct with incredible functionality, and something that is also beautiful to look at - it’s incredibly satisfying. And the sharpness - it’s addictive. If you don’t have it you crave it, and the more sharpness you have, the more you want."
The various JKC shops (there are three in London, plus stores in Paris and Stockholm) are all shrines to the particular draw of the knife - packed high with glinting, fearsomely sharp kitchenware - and, indeed, generally full of enraptured customers, almost hypnotised with delight as they practice slicing tomatoes into thin slivers in the demonstration area.
So, what makes the difference between a mediocre knife and the sublime?
“You look for three things when considering a new knife: functionality is the first thing. It’s a tool - you’re not buying a sculpture, or a painting. So it should be very sharp, remain sharp for as long as possible - and most of all it should be easy to resharpen. If you’ve spent £200 and you can’t resharpen it yourself, you may as well have thrown your money away. You’re buying an object that should last you 30, 40 years. My favourite knife in my own collection - I bought in Japan in 1984, and it’s still as sharp as its always been. Second: ergonomics. A knife is like a fountain pen; if one person uses it over time, it should wear to your hand. For a chef - you want to ensure there’s no repetitive strain injury. Finally - aesthetics. It should look beautiful. If you aren't a professional chef, you’d first look for functionality, then aesthetics - ergonomics third.”
It's a powerful combination of all of the above which gives Japanese knives their (sorry) edge. Patel explains, “What makes a knife functional? A hard piece of steel. What makes it long lasting? Hardness combined with toughness. And what makes it easy to sharpen? A soft piece of steel. So, in order to fulfil all these things; you need hard steel and soft steel. The Japanese do what’s called warikomi - sandwiching the steel, so the outside is soft, but the centre is very hard. The knife is laminated with lots of layers; the more layers you put on the thinner the central core is, the easier it is to sharpen and the stronger and more flexible it becomes.
The pattern, the patina, creates the beauty of the knife. The aesthetics are mesmerising - it’s a little like looking at the seashore. One of the patterns is called suminigashi - swirl of ink. It's like dispersing smoke, or tide marks left on the sand. If I buy something that will last 30 years, I want to buy a beautiful thing."
In an exclusive edit for The Spoils, here are Patel's five favourites, which really are the sharpest tools in the drawer.
“This is made by a very small workshop run by a gentleman by the name of Yama Waki. It’s based in Sakai, it’s the original traditional home of the Japanese knife. It has a 900 year history of making knives in the city. It's said that 60 - 70% of Japanese chefs in Japan will buy their knives in Sakai. Yamawaki-san is among the most respected - and he makes these knives specially for JKC with a western grain to them. It’s probably one of the best entry level blades you can find.”
“This knife was commissioned by us. I met a blacksmith named Kiryu-san about 25 years ago when I was working in Japan as an apprentice - he’s one of the most amazing blacksmiths. He works in a small workshop with his brother and his wife. He lives on a mountain in a pine forest, where the forge is, cut off from all civilisation. Because he’s so isolated, he does all the processing of the knives himself; heat treatment, grinding, handle fitting and final sharpening. He offers the best value for money for a Damsascus blade. And this particular blade is unique - 35 layer steel, rather than the standard 33.”
“Lots of Japanese knives are quite delicate - the idea being that you’re the only one that uses it. But in a western, family kitchen, you may not be able to keep one knife just for yourself. So I designed this range 15 years ago to meet that need for your family. I designed a knife that was dense and hardy, with steel thats easier to sharpen and looks stunning. It performs really well, it only needs sharpening once or twice a year, and it comes back brand new. It’s for someone who wants a fabulous knife - but they’re not that into knives! They just want a tool.”
“Oka work from Riki city - it’s about 40 or 50 km away from Osaka. It’s where the original Samurai swords came from. This particular knife - whilst it’s made for the Oka workshop, it’s not made by Oka-san himself. The man who actually forged the knife is called Sirou Kamo, and he’s probably amongst the top five or ten blacksmiths in Japan today. Now, he doesn’t normally make anything from modern steel - only traditional steels. They oxidise, rust, chip, need to be very well looked after and can be very expensive. But for the western kitchen - most customers don’t want things that rust. It took me 5 years to persuade him to clad a piece of ‘super blue steel’ in stainless steel. After this knife - you’re hitting the pinnacle of knife-making.
“This is made by Saji-san, the youngest person to become a National Craftsman of Japan, at 45 years old. He works from Takefu, and was one of Sirou Kamo’s original masters - he’s quite an old man now but still makes knives for us. It’s made of one of the hardest steels called R2 powder - a powdered metal. The are 101 layers of steel, and it’s got the weight of a European knife. It’s not light, like most Japanese knives. With this knife we say 'it behaves like a German but cuts like a Japanese'. It’s amongst the very highest quality of knife people can buy before they are buying purely for the aesthetics.”
Main image credit: Knives Rawpixel via Getty Images