JAPANESE KITCHEN KNIVES
How To Choose A Japanese Kitchen Knife – With Koki Iwahara
Koki Iwahara, owner of JCK, is an expert in Japanese kitchen knives. We’ve asked him some questions about his company, and some recommendations on choosing Japanese knives.
How did JCK (Japanese Chefs Knife) start?
Our company, Kencrest, is a family-owned business that has specialized in Japanese knife exportation since 1966. We are located in Seki City, Gifu Prefecture, a famous knife making center that has over 800 years of Japanese sword making history.
I lived in the United States when I was 20 to 22 years old, which was about 15 years ago. During that time, I had the opportunity to introduce and sell our Japanese knives at the Major US knife shows, such as Atlanta Blade Show, Blade Show West and several other US knife shows. Many knife enthusiasts were very impressed by the high quality of our Japanese knives and were very happy with the knives that they bought from us. I recognized the high quality of Japanese knives and I felt very proud of the cutlery being made in my hometown, Seki City, and also our family business.
At that time in the United States, Japanese foods, and Sushi in particular, were gaining popularity and becoming more commonplace. There were already many Japanese food restaurants in San Diego, California, where I had been staying. I had attempted to visit each of the Japanese food restaurants to promote the high quality and value offered by Japanese traditional-style knives, such as the Yanagiba and Deba, and sell them. Many of the Sushi Chefs and Chefs at these Japanese Restaurants were very happy to purchase and use the authentic Japanese traditional-style knives that we offered. At that point in time, Japanese kitchen knives were still uncommon and rare in US market. However, despite the relatively high price of high quality Japanese knives, we noticed that there was a significant demand for them among people who recognized and appreciated the value and advantages offered by high quality Japanese knives.
After spending around two years in the United States, I went back to Japan in 2003, where our company was making plans for the “JCK Online Store” that would allow us to introduce fine Japanese knives from Seki City to people all over the world. Back then, it was challenging to make direct internet sales from Japan to customers in the world.
Why should people choose to buy Japanese chef knives for their kitchen?
First of all, we would like to express our respect for the food cultures of other countries and our respect for the fine cooking knives that those countries have developed to suit their own particular cooking style and food culture.
Again, we recognize that each country has its own particular food culture and may have cooking tools that are well suited to producing that food. However, if your first priority is sharpness and high cutting performance, we firmly believe that Japanese knives will provide what you are looking for. We greatly respect the long history and fine craftsmanship of Japanese knives and we are very proud to introduce and sell them to our overseas customers.
What steel do you think is best on Japanese kitchen knives? Why?
Since the discovery of stainless steel, many different stainless cutlery steels have been developed. Today, most kitchen knives are made from a variety of high quality stainless steels.
Japanese knife makers have challenged themselves to produce knives that have excellent cutting performance and are highly practical. Consequently, choosing the right steel is one of the most important decisions they take when making a knife.
It is important to note that knives with high hardness and excellent cutting performance are typically difficult to sharpen. Stainless steel blades have good resistance to corrosion and require little maintenance, but they are often more difficult to sharpen than carbon steel blades. In contrast, carbon steel blades often have better sharpness and edge retention than stainless blades, but they tend to discolor and rust easily.
Consequently, the ‘best steel’ for a kitchen knife ultimately depends upon the specific preferences and requirements of the individual user. This is why we carry a wide range of knives that are handcrafted by some of Japan’s finest craftsmen. We admire all of these knives because each one is an expression of the spirit, passion, creative ideas and expertise of the artisan that produced them. In addition, each blade smith has endeavored to extract the best performance from the steel that they work with, by employing the most appropriate forging and heat-treatment methods.
From amongst our large range of products, we often receive very positive feedback from our customers about our knives made with Japan’s premium high carbon steel, Hitachi Aogami Super (Or, “Blue Super Steel”). Many experienced craftsmen have told us that making knives with Aogami Super is difficult (Especially the quenching process), however, the knives that are successfully made have outstanding sharpness, edge retention and hardness. If these features are high on your priority list, rather than extreme corrosion resistance, a well-made Aogami Super knife is one of our top recommendations. Sharpness and edge retention are the top priority of many of our customers who are seeking high quality Japanese knives.
In your opinion, what are the essential knives to include in a knife set at home?
We respect and acknowledge that each country has their own food culture and cooking style and that, similarly, each person has different needs depending on their own particular culinary interests, level of expertise and personal preferences. Consequently, we believe that recommending an ‘essential knife set’ is very difficult. Fortunately, high quality Japanese knives are available in a number of different blade types, so a wide variety of cutting tasks and customer requirements can be accommodated.
In Japan, the Santoku knife is the most popular home cooking knife. The Santoku, which translates in to English as either “three-purpose” or “three virtues”, gained this name because it is well suited to cutting meat, fish, and vegetables. The Santoku is often recommended as a multi-purpose kitchen knife for home cooks, and it is actually more commonly found in Japanese households than the Gyuto (Chef’s Knife).
A wide range of Japanese knives is available on the market, varying all the way from relatively cheap knives to those costing many thousands of US dollars. For many people, the most important factor when choosing a knife is the size of their budget. However, choosing a relatively expensive Japanese knife can offer great benefits, such as long service-life and fewer problems in general, because of their high-quality materials and construction. For example, if a person were able to use a knife for 300 days per year, over a total of ten years, you can imagine just how much time they would spend using the knife and how important it would be for them to own and use a good quality tool. In this case, the high initial purchase price of the tool should be offset by the long-term service life and superior performance that it offers.
High quality, high cutting performance, durability, ease of maintenance and ease of re-sharpening, are all important factors to consider when choosing your first Japanese knife. Our high-quality Japanese knives are not priced cheaply, but they offer many benefits and will bring joy to your cooking experience for many, many years.
What’s the best way to keep Japanese knives sharp? Do you have any equipment recommendations?
Even though each of our Japanese knife makers and craftsmen try their best to create knives with great cutting performance and edge retention, using all of their passion and knife-making expertise, every kitchen knife will eventually become dull and require re-sharpening.
We know that in many countries a sharpening steel / honing steel is a commonplace tool that is often used to ‘refresh’ or ‘realign’ the edge of knives, however, they are unsuitable for use with Japanese knives because their blades are considerably harder. Indeed, as we mentioned earlier, most Japanese knife makers go to great lengths to produce knives with high cutting performance and high hardness.
We believe that sharpening with whetstones is the best method available to maintain the high cutting performance of your Japanese knives. Long ago, the majority of Japanese people sharpened and maintained their own knives and got very good performance. This was partly due to the old Japanese custom of taking good care of your tools, in exchange for their faithful service. Similarly, by taking good care of your knife you showed respect for the artisan who produced it and all of the hard work, expertise and passion that were required to make it.
If you are interested in owning and using Japanese knives because of their reputation for high cutting performance, we wholeheartedly recommend that you learn how to sharpen them with whetstones, as this will allow you to enjoy your new cooking partner to the fullest. If you keep your fine Japanese knives in good condition and sharpen them “little but often”, they will provide you with high cutting performance for a long time.
When sharpening on stones, what’s the most common beginner mistake people make?
Many people that are new to sharpening worry about making mistakes or injuring themselves. Many young Japanese people also share these concerns about sharpening with whetstones, however, please remain positive-minded and do not hesitate to learn how to sharpen your knives. Many people find it less stressful to practice with a cheap knife at first, then move on to sharpening more expensive knives when they have gained some confidence.
Perhaps the most common mistake that beginners make is failing to flatten their whetstones (Waterstones or oilstones) before use, or failing to regularly check the flatness of their whetstones during extended use. Flattening your whetstone with some 80 or 120 grit silicon carbide powder, or ‘wet & dry’ paper, on a piece of 6mm / 0.25 inch float glass will make your sharpening results and accuracy much more consistent, which is especially important when you are just starting out. Whetstone flatness is particularly important when sharpening single bevel edge traditional Japanese knives, as a convex stone can damage the narrow flat edge on the back side of the blade quickly and correcting this mistake can require the removal of a lot of blade material.
What kitchen knives do YOU use? Do you have any favorites?
I own and use a Mr. Itou R-2 Custom Damascus Gyuto knife and a Misono UX10 Santoku knife. Both of them are treasured memorial knives.
The Misono UX10 Santoku was a gift for my wife when we got married about 10 years ago, and using this knife made me realize why we should recommend good quality knives. The UX10 Santoku quickly become her favorite knife and it is still her favorite cooking partner. Although high quality Japanese knives are relatively expensive, we can enjoy using them for a long time without any problems, and they can actually make cooking more enjoyable.
My other favorite knife is an R-2 Custom Damascus Gyuto that was given to me by Mr. Itou as a special gift. He wanted me to experience the cutting performance and quality of his knives before JCK began selling his knives to our customers. His knives have a unique appearance that many people find attractive, but Mr. Itou actually pays the most attention to something that you cannot actually ‘see’: Cutting performance and edge-retention. Mr. Itou’s knives have outstanding cutting performance and edge retention because of his expertise with the forging techniques and knife making processes that he employs. We recognize Mr. Itou as a true custom knife maker, who has developed his own distinctive methods and designs in order to express his passionate philosophy and love of knife making.
With many shops selling Japanese chef knives, What sets you apart from the competition?
If we compare the current knife market to that of 10 years ago, there are now a greater number of Japanese knives available and they have become much more popular and commonplace. It is great that more people have recognized the quality of Japanese knives, however, now that customers have a such a wide selection of knives available to choose from, it can be difficult for them to locate and decide which knife is right for them.
We have been working closely with our knife makers and craftsmen to build our own exclusive ’house brands’, such as “JCK Original Kagayaki” and “JCK Original Fu-Rin-Ka-Zan”.
These carefully selected and high quality Japanese knives are hand-made by especially skilled craftsmen and we have confidence that they will satisfy our customer’s needs and offer them outstanding value for money.
We will continue working with our talented knife makers and craftsmen to produce an even wider selection of fine knives for our customers, and we will make every effort to improve our customer service and reliability.
Currently, what’s your business biggest challenge?
Ever since we launched JCK in 2003, our primary goal has been to help each of our customers to buy fine Japanese knives that satisfy their individual preferences, needs and requirements. This mission continues to be challenging, but it is also very rewarding.
We also believe that it is important for us to work closely with our knife makers and craftsmen to ensure that they are producing knives that fit our customer’s needs. In addition, we believe that for the long-term future of the knife industry, it is very important to create a positive environment that encourages the next generation of talented craftsmen and knife makers to produce high quality, impressive knives.
Tell us something people might be surprised to learn about JCK.
It may not be surprising news to some, but I would like to explain a little detail about the origin of our exclusive JCK “輝 Kagayaki” and “風林火山 功明 Fu-Rin-Ka-Zan” brand names. Both of these house-brand names contain the Japanese Kanji characters that are the first names of my two sons: The Kanji 輝 can be read as both “Kagayaki” or as “Akira”, my sons name; Similarly, the Kanji 功明 in the “Fu-Rin-Ka-Zan” brand name is my sons name, “Kōmei”.
We passionately want to establish a high quality Japanese knife brand that will survive for generations and we intend to continually improve the quality, value and service of our brand as we move forward. In the future, we hope that our sons will grow up and see people all over the world happily using their JCK knives, and that our brand name will be considered trustworthy and well regarded. This is one of the stories and concepts behind our exclusive JCK house-brands.
In closing, we would like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank all of our customers, from the bottom of our heart, for their continued business and support over the last 13 years. Although the company has grown, with your support, our ongoing mission and commitment to our founding philosophy remains the same; We will continue to make every effort to bring you the very finest Japanese knives at the very best prices possible and to provide our customers with excellent service.