Cutting Edge

Burnt-out chef brings Japanese blades to Canada

Kevin Kent

What started out with a mountain bike and a backpack filled with Japanese knives to sell to chefs in bars, kitchens and alleys has turned into quite the empire in just a few years. Kevin Kent, CEO of Knifewear Group, is a self-described burnt-out chef with a passion for sharp tools and whose inspiration has led him to open five shops across Canada that sell knives made in Japan, as well as three shaving and grooming shops called Kent of Inglewood.

Kent worked in the kitchen for more than 20 years — and not just any kitchen. He did a stint in London as the sous-chef at St. John Restaurant with the eccentric genius Fergus Henderson. There, he said, he learned what excellence really means.

After many years in England, I moved back to Calgary in 2006, planning to open a restaurant. But then, in spring 2007, I had saved C$8,000. With that money, I imported a few knives from Japanese makers and made some food-, chef- and knife-inspired shirts designed by Canadian chef and illustrator Pierre Lamielle. That is where the name Knifewear came from,” Kent explained.

He first became acquainted with Japanese knives nearly two decades ago. “In 1999, I met my first Japanese knife. I thought I knew what a sharp knife was. If you had asked me, I would have told you that I always kept my knives razor sharp. I thought I had good knives, and I was confident in my ability to keep them sharp. And I was ignorant enough to not realize just how dull my knives actually were,” he admitted.

For Kent, the early days of Knifewear were simply a way to pass the time and have some fun. “I wanted to sell a few knives so that I could add some really great ones to my personal collection and I wanted to sell some cool shirts. Eventually, I had planned to open a restaurant, or a few of them,” he said.

Beyond the Backpack

But in 2007, after a busy summer visiting chefs on his mountain bike and carrying a knife-filled backpack, things got a little hectic — in the best way possible.

Kent was getting up to 15 calls a day from people who were wondering where his shop was, and if they could buy knives right away. He eventually set up a table at the Calgary Farmers’ Market on the weekends, met customers there for knife sales and collected knives for sharpening before returning them. “It was not ideal,” Kent recalled, “but I did what I had to do.”

At Knifewear’s Calgary location, an employee sharpens a knife.

His world completely changed over the next few years. He opened a small kiosk in another retail shop, then got his own space at the current Ninth Avenue location in Calgary. “For the next four years, my team and I focused on turning that shop into a knife lover’s destination and a hangout for chefs and food lovers.”

Now, people can find Knifewear shops in Calgary (two locations), Vancouver, Ottawa and Edmonton. Along with his team, he also created the Kent of Inglewood grooming brand, opening stores in Calgary, Ottawa and Edmonton.

Knifewear caters to chefs and ordinary people as well. Not every Canadian is familiar with the quality of Japanese knives, but the Knifewear stores let customers get up close and personal with the tools. “People come to [our shops] every day, all day. We always have tomatoes, potatoes and carrots for customers to cut with our sample knives. After they try our knives they know they are the best in the world,” Kent said with pride.

Customers can also order directly online on a website that summarizes the qualities of each type of knife and provides detailed information about its composition, manu­facturer and city of origin. Even knife rookies need not feel intimidated by the world of Japanese knives, thanks to the site’s clear descriptions and witty captions.

“This is an industry we need to protect and nurture. And I think it needs to be more famous in Japan.”

Knife Ties

To stock up on knives and create ties with local craftsmen, Kent comes to Japan two or three times a year, bringing with him a new staff member or two.

Sakai, the Osaka city perhaps best known for knives, is one of the places he visits, but there are others: Yatsushiro in Kumamoto Prefecture, Sanjo and Tsubame in Niigata Prefecture, Niimi in Okayama Prefecture, Fukuyama in Hiroshima Prefecture and Tokyo. But one location stands out. “Echizen in Fukui Prefecture is my most important stop,” he added. “We get more knives from there than any other area.”

Kent is the first to admit that his work keeps him busy but has its benefits. “I’m in the enviable position that I get to visit Japan two or three times a year,” he said. “On these trips I eat loads of Japanese food, drink nihonshu, and sing the occasional karaoke song.”

At the beginning, Kent was introduced to one supplier in Japan, from whom he got his first knives. He then had the chance to meet other suppliers though introductions, as well as at various trade shows all around the world. Now, every year Knifewear takes one or more Japanese blacksmiths to Canada to meet the staff and to give knife-making demos.

Kent celebrates the talent of those craftsmen in his recently published book, The Knifenerd Guide to Japanese Knives. “I realized that there are a few kitchen knife books out there, but none that really spoke to me. The main thrust of the book is to shine a light on the blacksmiths and craftsmen who make the knives we love. At home, they are seen as workers in an almost unknown industry, but they are rock stars to our customers. I think they should be famous for their work so I wrote this book to help them gain more attention for their skills,” he explained.

A customer at Knifewear’s Calgary location examines the merchandise.

As if the quest for sharp tools and a book about them weren’t enough, Kent has also produced a film, Springhammer, along with film maker Kevin Kossowan. While focusing on the past, present and future of blacksmithing in Japan, the movie reveals facets of Japanese culture. It set an attendance record at the Edmonton International Film Festival, where it also won the People’s Choice Award. (The film can be viewed free on the Knifewear website.)

As for future plans, Kent has outgrown those days of the mountain bike and knife-filled backpack. His next step is to expand Knifewear to Toronto, but he’s also got global ambitions: “We would love to open a rock and roll knife shop in Kyoto. I think it would be great fun and a good business. Beyond that, I would love to partner with someone or a group in Japan to help start a blacksmithing school. I see the demand for these knives as only growing, and I want there to be new people taking up the trade every year. This is an industry we need to protect and nurture. And I think it needs to be more famous in Japan.”

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