(Originally published March 25, 2013 on Examiner.com).
Step into the kitchens of Los Angeles’ restaurants and you’ll likely find many line cooks and a number of chefs using knives supplied to them by Jon Broida of Japanese Knife Imports. Jon and his wife from Northern Japan, Sara, started selling knives online in 2010, and more recently in the summer of 2011 opened a show room in Venice on Main Street.(More recently they relocated to Wilshire Blvd in Beverly Hills). When he opened his show room, Jon extended a standing offer to any one who cooks professionally in the Los Angeles area, with advanced notice, to come in and meet with him for an hour or so to learn more about Japanese knives and sharpening.
His store carries its own brand, Gesshin, of knives that are custom made for Japanese Knife Imports to Jon’s specifications by a number of different Japanese knife manufacturers. For example, the Gesshin Heiji line of knives is a custom line made for Japanese Knife Imports by Nakaya Heiji. About 80% of the knives in Jon’s store are custom made for his store based upon what he believes best serves his clientele as well as what coincides with his personal preferences improving upon things like fit, finish, the quality of handles and heat treatments. Jon tries to push his manufacturers as much as he can with his specifications to get the best products to sell to his customers.
Whether Jon’s selling his store brand or other brands, his sales approach, unlike other companies, is a bottom up approach. Whereas other companies use celebrity chefs to endorse and sell their products, from having worked in kitchens himself, Jon knows who actually uses knives the most in any kitchen, the line cooks, and sous chefs. So that’s who he sells knives to the most. For young line cooks fresh out of school looking to upgrade their school knives, Jon even sets aside a more affordable line of knives that he doesn’t display for these young cooks working very long hours for little pay. As these cooks progress through kitchens to become chefs with bigger budgets, they can then upgrade to other better and more expensive knives that Japanese Knife Imports carries.
Jon’s own interest in Japanese food is what made him pursue an Asian Studies major. Though he originally wanted to pursue a combined MBA/JD and become a consultant, working in kitchens (including Chef Marino’s Il Grano) during the school breaks a year before graduating college altered his career path. He loved working in kitchens even when he had to do the most menial tasks. After school, he again worked at Il Grano before getting the chance to go work in Japan. In Japan working at a small family operated kaiseki, he became familiar with the different types of Japanese knives and knife sharpening. Though he initially learned a few bad habits, the more fascinated and diligent he became the more Jon’s expertise grew. Over the years since that initial job in a Japanese kitchen, Jon has been to Japan numerous times, and has trained and spent time with many of Japan’s most talented craftsmen, blacksmiths, and chefs. Over these years, Jon has also experimented with cutting and sharpening techniques trying different knives and water stones.
Jon is now per his own terms a bona fide “knife geek” who not only shares his knowledge and expertise in his store, but also at trade shows, on location in restaurant kitchens, and online on Japan Knife Imports’ website, blog and youtube channel. His youtube channel now has over one hundred hours of recorded videos describing his knives and water stones as well as providing demonstrations of sharpening techniques.
Step into Jon, and his wife Sara’s Japanese Knife Imports’ show room in Beverly Hills and you’re bound to be mesmerized by bright shiny objects. Whether you’re an aspiring home cook, line cook or chef, Japanese Knife Imports has an appropriate knife for you within your budget. Knives range in price from twenty-five dollars to over twenty-five hundred dollars. With any and every new customer, Jon takes the time to understand where each person is coming from to help each customer make the most appropriate knife selection.
Jon tries to find a knife that is experience and skill wise appropriate for his customers. Not something for where they are right now, but something for where they are and where they’ll be for the foreseeable future, that is a knife that a customer can grow with as a customer improves his or her skill level. To do this Jon always asks to look at the knives that each customer is currently using. He asks what trouble each customer is having with his or her knife as well as what each one likes or dislikes about his or her knife.
Jon then asks about a customer’s experience with sharpening .Sharpening is a large issue with Japanese knives. Even though Jon provides sharpening as a service, he feels that any cook, whatever his or her level, should learn how to sharpen his or her own knives to get the most from this tool. If Jon does the sharpening, there’s a level of disconnect between the cook or chef and his knife.
So the level of and commitment to care and maintenance is just one of the many factors that goes into knife selection. What’s being cut, what type of cutting board is being used, and what are a cook’s preference regarding handles and balance are other factors as well as whether the knife is made of stainless or carbon steel. Obviously price is also a large issue.
More expensive higher end knives tend to be either really thin or hard so these knives may be either really brittle or fragile so sharpening is more difficult in particular due to certain added alloying elements. In general the more you spend on knives, like with many other things in life (e.g. cameras and cars), the more skill it takes to use and maintain them.
Whereas for some one starting out or an aspiring home cook, he’ll sell that person something not too thick, thin, hard or soft, that’s very well balanced, stainless steel and relatively chip resistant. Jon shows this person a lot of options of this type of knife including his entry level line, Gesshin Uraku. The double beveled gyuto style of knife, the equivalent of a western chef’s knife, is much lighter overall plus tough and durable which is really important when people are getting started with Japanese knives. If a person prefers western handles, he has western handle equivalents of this knife as well as many other knives he sells; though the western handle adds weight and changes the balance toward the back away from the tip of the blade.
Weight is one of the many differences between Japanese and German knives. In general, Japanese knives are thinner, significantly thinner, and thus slice through food easier with less wedging and less force needed to cut through the food. Japanese knives tend to be harder which means they’re able to hold an acute angle more effectively and also hold better edge retention. The blade profile tends to be flatter overall so there’s less belly, thus when cutting the rocking motion isn’t used. So as to not do damage especially the higher end knives, cooks and chefs have to adjust their techniques to fit the knife, so there is some learning that goes into using one.
The downside of Japanese knives is that these knives tend to be more fragile and brittle. There is more chipping plus they require more care and maintenance. Moreover honing rods can’t be used with many Japanese knives because this will cause a lot of chipping to the edge. With carbon steel knives more attention has to be paid so the knife doesn’t change the color, smell or taste of the food being prepared. More understanding is also required on the cook or chef’s part to use a Japanese knife to get the most and best use from it. So you can’t use a lot of these knives to cut through bones or frozen food. There are special Japanese knifes, boning knives, with thicker less hard blades to do this.
Chefs and cooks use a gyuto to make the larger cuts. The three main knives that you see used forwashoku or Japanese cuisine in Japanese kitchens are the yanagiba, usuba, and the deba. Theyanagiba has a long blade and is used primarily for slicing particularly for fish that’s already been filleted like sashimi. This knife has a single sided edge with what looks like one big bevel that’s a compound bevel called a hamaguri edge. The usuba is another single bevel blade and is what’s used on vegetables for techniques like katsuramuki, a rotary peeling technique, and sengiri the equivalent of julienne cuts. The deba is a single bevel knife used for filleting fish.
With a lot of commercial kitchens doing whole animal butchery, Jon has gotten a number of special knives for clients who’ve requested them like Chef Gerwig at the Village Idiot.
Though in most kitchens, knives from Jon and Sara’s Japanese Knife Imports are being used to do all the day to day prep work and other required cuts. In Spago, Superba Snack Bar, and Stella Rossa almost the entire kitchen crews have knives from Japanese Knife Imports. These are just a few of the many restaurants in Los Angeles where cooks and chef use Jon’s knifes. Since there aren’t many people who do what Jon does with his level of expertise, via word of mouth and the internet, Jon has customers from around the world. Many travel from San Francisco, San Diego, New York City and elsewhere to buy and learn from Jon in person.
Even with greater demands on his time, at least for now, any one who cooks professionally in the Los Angeles may still schedule time to meet with Jon and learn more about Japanese knives and sharpening. His show room in Beverly Hills located at 8642 Wilshire Blvd is also open to the public for retail sales without an appointment. Check Japanese Knife Imports’ website for store hours.
Please also follow Jon and Japanese Knife Imports on twitter @JKnifeImports.