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Gabriel Zimmer

Meet the Japanese Knife Doctor

Vincent Lau, a master knife sharpener, is always on edge. Literally. Published: October 08, 2019

The first thing you notice upon entering Korin, a cramped storefront in Tribeca lined with wall-to-wall shelves, is the dizzying array of tableware. All of it is Japanese, from the squat iron tea kettles to the delicate ceramic sake cups, and together the assortment takes up nearly every inch of available space. But those in the know, most of them chefs or experienced amateurs, breeze past the lacquered bento boxes, past the elegant chopsticks, past the dainty patterned soy sauce trays. They’ve come for the knives.

“All these knives started with samurais making swords,” said Vincent Lau, the shop’s resident sharpener. “You can chase their route all the way back through history. To be at the head of that right now and moving it forward? It’s really fascinating for me.”

There are nearly 600 Japanese knives of varying size, shape, material, and brand on display at any given time at Korin, all neatly arranged like prized specimens inside a brightly-lit display case pressed against the back wall. When founder Saori Kawano opened the business in 1982, there wasn’t much of a demand for such blades, which unlike traditional European knives have only a single bevel. To the average fine-dining chef in the 1980s, most trained in the classical French style, Japanese knives were awkward to hold and even stranger to behold. Thinner and more delicate than a European knife, they have a greater tendency to chip—and they’re downright dangerous in the wrong hands. But Kawano, a former waitress-turned-entrepreneur, went door-to-door with samples in tow, making her case for traditional Japanese knives. Properly maintained, she’d tell prospective customers, they’re sharper and more precise than even the finest European blade. It took more than a decade, but by the 1990s, New York City’s chef scene was hooked.

Korin’s selection can range from the reasonable to the ultra luxury, with starter knives going for as little as $50 and hand-crafted masterpieces running upwards of $6,000. With so much money potentially on the line, good maintenance habits are essential. That’s where Lau comes in.

“Definitely the most common mistake I see is people not sharpening at the correct angle,” Lau said. “Every knife is different, and you have to figure out what the appropriate angle is.”

It takes some practice and then some to master. At the shop, an ancient-looking, three-foot-wide stone water wheel whirs to life, honing a dull blade back to razor-sharp glory. Modernized only with a small motor, the machine’s underlying mechanism has a history going back centuries. A series of shaking belts smartens up the blade until it glints in the shop’s bright lights.

“The knives we get in for repair, a lot of time, it’s been sharpened incorrectly for a long time,” Lau said. “To fix something like that on a whetstone, it might take an hour. But on the water wheel, I can cut that to five minutes.”

Lau’s curiosity about knives stems from a childhood spent in this very shop. The son of restaurateurs who regularly bought Kawano’s knives, Lau grew up fascinated by the craft that goes into each blade. “I started working here part-time during college, nine years ago,” Lau recalled. “I was selling knives. Then it was, ‘Do you want to try sharpening?’ I didn’t look back.”

His sharpening lessons began with Korin’s longtime master sharpener, a Japanese native with more than 20 years of experience. For blade sharpening, as with many Japanese artisanal trades, the pursuit of perfection can stretch into infinity. Though retired, “he still goes to Japan two to three times a year,” Lau noted. “His teacher is 94 and still figuring out better ways to put a better edge on a knife.”

And yet, these days it’s Lau who teaches. Two or three times a month, he ventures out to New York City restaurants and hotels to instruct chefs on the proper way to maintain Japanese knives. Every two months, he goes farther afield, traveling to destinations from Orlando to Cabo San Lucas. Later this month, he’ll be in Chicago, giving a demonstration to the high-end chefs at Grant Achatz’s Next restaurant and Stephanie Izard’s The Girl and the Goat, as well as the Park Hyatt and Peninsula Hotels.

There’s more at stake here than just selling knives. In past decades, Lau said, chefs in Japan had strayed from tradition and started adopting Western-style knives. The old makers, whose families had smithed blades for generations, saw their children ditching the craft for more modern fields in the technology industry. The artisanal Japanese knife industry seemed on the decline. But by stoking interest in Japanese knives abroad, Lau believes Korin effectively helped save the industry.

“In Japan, it started a revival in the knife industry,” he said. Now, “the kids are coming back to continue in their family industry and to the knife-making craft.”

Lau sees himself sharpening knives for a long time, he assured me. But he wants to do more than that. “I speak Japanese, but I was born in America and I speak English,” Lau said. “I want to be this bridge between this ancient culture of knife making and people in the United States.” That’s not to say he’s done learning, though. “The more I learn, the more I find there’s more to learn,” he said, laughing. “You can spend a lifetime learning, and there’s still more.”

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