Blades of Glory: 6 Hawai‘i Chefs Tell the Stories Behind Their Favorite Knife
The knife is the most important, and often the most personal, tool for chefs.
Robynne Mai‘i, Fête
My most sentimental knife is a 10-inch Forschner chef knife I poached from my parents’ kitchen drawer when I started culinary school at Kapi‘olani Community College. My parents used to run the rib booth at the ‘Iolani Fair and during their tenure, they acquired many of these inexpensive workhorses. Everyone told me the 10-inch chef knife was too big for me. But I dutifully wrapped mine, along with a random paring knife of no discernible brand, in my lucky Winnie the Pooh tea towel (all secured with rubber bands from asparagus bunches) and used them in my culinary classes. The funny thing was, I was never envious of my classmates who had fancy German knives with slick-looking cases, fancy knife sheaths and sexy black knife bags. I knew these things wouldn’t make them better cooks. This knife lives at Fête and is my favorite.
Nearly a year after Fête opened, Emily Iguchi, our chef de cuisine, introduced us to Jeremy Watson of Chubo Knives, which specializes in well-crafted Japanese knives. Ever since that initial meeting, I’ve used Jeremy’s knives every day. I trust him implicitly and for the price, nothing compares. Any knife from his canon will perform beautifully—even the most modestly priced ones—and we’ve converted all of our cooks. Jeremy comes annually to Fête; when he’s there, the cooks’ enthusiasm and kid-in-the-candy-store glee is delightful to see.
Roy Yamaguchi, Roy’s Hawai‘i
I would have to say my most sentimental knife is my Forschner slicing knife. What led me to pursue cooking was taking home ec in high school. It began with a simple turkey I roasted, carved and plated for my high school counselor, who, after his meal, said, “I’m telling you, I think you have a future in cooking.” Throughout my career, I’ve been given and used many types of knives, but when I think about the first turkey I ever served my high school counselor, and the Thanksgiving holidays since then, simply carving the turkey I’ve roasted for my family and friends continues to bring joyful moments and memories.
Aaron Leikam, Street Burger
photo: rachel breitweser
I have two knives that I rely on on a regular basis. One is a 10-inch Green River butcher knife, which was given to me by a fellow chef in Seattle. I use it constantly and it is my go-to for so many projects. I use it in place of a scimitar knife. It is a lightweight carbon steel knife that is easily honed to a super sharp edge. Green River knives were originally made in Greenfield, Massachusetts, by John Russell around 1833. They were mostly used by fur traders and mountain men around that time. Mine is identical to one that may have been used by early settlers. It proves worthy to this day when breaking down large cuts of meat, whole animals or even filleting large yellowfin tuna.
My other knife appears to be another Green River. There are no markings, but it has all the same characteristics as a traditional Green River Buffalo Skinner knife. This knife is a little smaller with a curved blade, which makes it great for skinning animals, but I use it to mostly cut vegetables. Its talonlike tip and super sharp edge make slicing a tomato easier than any Ginsu knife out there. I found this knife while helping my wife’s family clean out her great-grandfather’s farmhouse in the rural Shenandoah Valley. It is cool thinking about this knife being used to butcher cows, pigs or sheep several generations ago. It is definitely a family heirloom that I feel honored to be using today.
Peter Merriman, Merriman’s Hawai‘i
The chef’s knife is a cook’s primary tool. Regardless of how many other knives we have, most use the chef’s knife about 90 percent of the time. My first chef’s knife was given to me by chef Hans Schadler in 1978, when I was apprenticing under him at RockResorts, mostly in Woodstock, Vermont.
Earlier in 1978, I was working as a restaurant manager at the World Trade Center in New York, trying to decide whether to stay in management or start all over as a cook’s apprentice. I sought the advice of Jerry Green, who was the sous chef at the Market Bar where I worked. His response was simple but sparked an epiphany for me that I’ll never forget. “Pete,” Jerry said, “the thing about cookin’ is ya got a trade you walk with.” Not quite following, I asked for more details. He said, “It’s like being a guitar player. You can work wherever you like. Everyone needs good cooks.”
The sharpening marks on the blade bear witness to a knife that has traveled from Martha’s Vineyard to Frankfurt, Germany, to the Big Island and now Maui. I still use it today but not as often. That knife was my guitar. It allowed me to walk all over and end up in Hawai‘i.
Abby Ferrer, Star Noodle
I still have the first Japanese knife I purchased as a broke line cook in New York City. I transitioned out of a pastry kitchen to the hot line and everyone had these sexy Japanese knives that were thinner and lighter to work with. I went to JB Prince (a restaurant supply store) and I couldn’t decide among the brands and prices, so the salesperson said, “Close your eyes and hold the knife—it has to feel good in your hand.” I spent $70 and walked out with an 8-inch MAC that day.
Another knife I still have is my Suisin carbon slicer. I couldn’t afford it at the time. I think it was $90 but I was still getting paid $10 an hour as a line cook, taking classes to finish my bachelor’s degree and living in New York City. It was gifted to me by my ex’s parents about 18 years ago. We went to the Korin store, and I beelined it for the slicer. I was telling her dad about it and before we left, they ended up buying it for me. At that time in my life it was a huge gesture of support for my career.
About three years ago, I bought a 285 mm Nenox Green Bone Handle Sujihiki. It was $735 and is the most expensive knife I own. To buy it was a huge decision—it was more than half my rent and I almost didn’t feel worthy! Wise words from my wife: “You’ve earned it. You work hard and deserve nice things.”
My knife collection represents my journey. I’ve purchased knives because I needed them for work, for specific tasks. But lately I’ve been buying knives because I love them.
Mark Pomaski, Moon and Turtle
photo: james rubio
I started working in a sushi bar when I was 19. I stayed with my first chef for five years, during which time he taught me the fundamentals of Japanese knife care and use, as well as how to prepare sushi. At first, I borrowed one of his old knives, but I soon bought my own pair. We used traditional high-carbon steel knives. They will rust and tarnish quickly if they’re not cared for properly. But if you know how to care for them, they’re wonderful tools and a pleasure to work with.
When I left the company, the chef gave me his own yanagi (a long, thin knife) as a gift. This was the sashimi knife that I watched him work with every day behind the sushi counter. I was incredibly moved and overwhelmed by the gesture. I have used that knife constantly for the past 17 years, on all of the main Hawaiian Islands and on both coasts of the U.S. Mainland. I have since purchased many beautiful knives, but Ozaki-san’s yanagi is still the one I reach for the most.
I was so touched by that gesture almost 20 years ago that I have continued the tradition in my own career. I have given away my personal knives to my co-workers and employees as expressions of gratitude or friendship, but most often as farewell gifts. I love this tradition. It allows me to share a piece of myself with my colleagues, a memento and a useful tool that I hope will be enjoyed for many years. And I hope my friends think of me when they use those knives, as I remember my time with Ozaki-san when I use his yanagi.