The Sanctity of Sushi Knives

Words by
Lisa Kwon
Illustrations by
Giacomo Bagnara

The most mesmerizing sight in the world is watching something glide: a figure skater gaining momentum around the rink, a wide-winged tern skimming freely above coastal waters, or, for those on both sides of a sushi bar, a steady knife slicing through fresh salmon toro.

Be it training in time-honored establishments or learning proper techniques in their own kitchens, there are many ways to prepare the mouth-watering sushi dishes that Los Angeles is justly famed for. But no matter the level of experience, every chef begins by understanding the age-old kitchen instrument that gets more fascinating to wield the more they practice.

Here two brothers of the blade—Jack Chaikampa, chef at Kombu Sushi’s location in Downtown, and Masa Shimakawa, owner of Soko Sushi in Santa Monica—discuss the most critical tool of their craft.

How Do You Learn To Use A Sushi Knife?

Both Shimakawa and Chaikampa are grateful to have been under the tutelage of their masters.

Shimakawa learned to work with knives at his first post at a sushi bar in his hometown of Hakodate, a city located on Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island. At 23, he was given his first chopping lessons while apprenticing side-by-side with his master.

On the other hand, Chaikampa first learned from his mentor at The Room Sushi Bar, near Beverly Hills, before moving over to Kombu to further his practice with the head chef. Though he now has eight years of experience under his belt, he still gets engrossed in YouTube videos, which were a huge asset to his education when he first began in 2014.

“I had to collect all this knowledge for many years from YouTube and from Kombu,” says Chaikampa, who specifically credits Tokyo Sushi Academy for their comprehensive videos.

How Many Knives Do You Need?

Though it depends on the sushi restaurant’s offerings, many chefs keep any combination of the below in their station:

— The Deba knife, the thickest and stoutest one among the bunch, is used to prepare and fillet whole fish. Many are created as single bevel knives, which means the blade has been ground on just one side. Both Shimakawa and Chaikampa have one Deba knife in their collection.

— The Yanagiba knife is a slender and elegant instrument with a leaf-like blade and a long hilt. Because of his specialty in sashimi and nigiri, Shimakawa most often uses two different Yanagiba knives that are both 33 centimeters with wood block handles. One of them is a specially smithed Honyaki, a source of pride for the chef, given that its craftsmanship is akin to that of a traditional Japanese sword. Chaikampa also has two Yanagiba knives, one of which has a V-shaped tip; this edge yields a different artistic cut when slicing a fish laterally. The slice is not visually different to the standard sushi enthusiast, but Chaikampa indulges in those private moments of joy.

— With its rectangular and tall blade, the versatile Usuba knife can hack into large vegetables, such as cabbages for coleslaw, but also be used to delicately slice those like cucumbers and daikon into thick or thin wedges to present on sushi plates. The most mathematical of the family, the Usuba knife is essential to Chaikampa to achieve a culinary calculus that fits a variety of fish onto a plate.

In addition to the aforementioned knives, Chaikampa also keeps a standard chef’s knife with a Western handle nearby for more robust chopping or to prepare meatier dishes.

How Do You Choose Your Knives?

Shimakawa doesn’t have to think twice; ever since he began as a cook, he’s always sought Masamoto Sohonten’s lines of knives, which have been in production in Japan since the late 1800s. They came strongly recommended by his mentor because of their long heritage and trusted name in culinary circles in Japan.

“Once I started to use it, I couldn’t change it,” he says.

Both Shimakawa and Chaikampa also look at the quality of carbon steel. The material must prove itself durable, as a metalsmith treats it with heat then hammers repeatedly to form different angles.

“Of course I can recognize a difference,” says Shimakawa. “Almost 30 years of working with steel knives, I can feel it.”

In addition to the blade, Chaikampa also looks at a knife’s hilt, which is why he prefers Nenohi Cutlery for his rotation. Although Nenohi does not have the brand recognition that Masamoto Sohonten has in America, he is fond of the maker’s practicality; his knives are lighter than popular Japanese brands. Chaikampa also appreciates the careful attention that Nenohi’s family of craftsmen pays to each Deba and Yanagiba knife he has purchased.

Where Do You Get Your Knives?

A man of routine, Shimakawa enjoys his yearly trips back home to browse new cutlery and replace older knives at a kitchenware store in Tokyo. He keeps the shop’s name close to his heart. Chaikampa, who has no family or roots in Japan, instead keeps tabs on online suppliers.

Neither chef, however, has had to replace any of their knives in years. Their currently most used knives have been their trustworthy tools for a decade. Though the veteran Shimakawa has long replaced the knives that were given to him in his twenties, Chaikampa is still able to use the knives he inherited from the former head chef at Kombu.

Knife Shortage

As with all good things, there is a current shortage of Japanese knives in the market. Chaikampa regularly checks a list of websites, knowing the time has come to replace his Usaba knife, but he has not had any luck. “Japanese craftsmen make just enough every year because it is hard to find good steel,” he says.

Jon Broida, owner of Japanese Knife Imports in Beverly Hills, a shop that has earned legendary status among local sushi chefs for its selection and sharpening services, cites a decrease in skilled labor as a critical reason for the current decrease in supply.

“When I entered the knife business, people’s demand for handmade knives and interest in traditional Japanese cuisine had been waning,” says Broida, who has run Japanese Knife Imports with his wife since 2010. “Now with a massive foreign interest boom, people are busy again, but there’s a large gap where people were unwilling to take apprentices because they saw no future in the business.”

Currently, there are craftsmen who don’t have apprentices; when they’re gone, they’re gone.

According to Broida, younger generations have since entered the business to move through the labor gap and redevelop skills. Many of them are in their thirties and forties and are either self-starters or new business owners after shorter mentorships from their elders domestic suppliers like Broida are faced with the challenge of reinvesting in the market by buying from new blacksmiths and educating local chefs on the state of the handmade knife.

How Do You Take Care Of Your Knives?

No well-loved knife is without its buffs and scratches, but Chaikampa and Shimakawa give each of their instruments the utmost care. Even though they are the sharpest objects at their stations, Japanese knives are also incredibly delicate.

Shimakawa cleans and sharpens his knives every night at Soko Sushi after closing. If he feels it necessary, he uses a fine sharpening stone to get them slice-and-dice ready before they go back into their case.

Of course, individual maintenance depends on the knife. For Chaikampa’s tools, the Kombu chef prefers to sharpen his knives every couple of months, whipping out three sets of whetstones – arranged in varying grit levels – and spending up to an hour sharpening each knife. The first half of the hour is spent on the 1,000 grit stone, the latter polishing and refining against a 3,000 grit stone.

Chaikampa loves the process.

“I need my knives to be very sharp,” he says. “I want them to be able to cut paper.”

A chef’s cleaning process is just as meticulous, if not painstaking. No one walks away from their stations without ensuring every bit of their knife is bone-dry. It is raw food, after all; it behooves anybody to be obsessive about this stage.

“My goal is always to keep the customers happy,” says Chaikampa, “and to do that everything has to be very clean.”

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