Sometimes it’s just one thing that separates a home cook from a chef: Their knife.
For those who love cooking, fewer things have the power to unlock a next-level appreciation and understanding of preparing food than the use of an excellent knife.
While the joys of cooking aren’t limited to just those who cook for a living, Vancouver chef Douglas Chang has stepped out from behind the stoves to open a knife shop called Ai & Om.
Chang says his journey to being the proprietor of the Chinatown knife shop stretches back in his own professional history to one of his first cooking jobs, when the chef he worked with taught him the fundamentals of caring for and respecting knives. His relationship with knives extended to his days off from a cooking post in New York City, when he hung around a local knife shop and learned about sharpening.
Back in Toronto, Chang continued to seek out knowledge and experience with knives, and soon became known among his colleagues for his expertise, particularly sharpening. After a move to Vancouver and gigs cooking at local restaurants like West, Bambudda, and Sai Woo, Chang reflected on his career path, and prepared to open Ai & Om, a sibling shop to Tosho in Toronto–run by one of his knife mentors.
Chang traveled to Japan to meet suppliers and blacksmiths, staying in their villages getting acquainted with their lives and work. Although Chang says many countries around the world produce top-quality knives, Ai & Om stocks mostly Japanese knives, and Chang has personal experience using every knife he carries. He also is a skilled sharpener, and a visit to his shop may find him at work at the sharpening station he’s set up near the front window in the small store.
Although Chang is now cooking for pleasure and not pay, he is a new go-to for chefs in the region for knives and sharpening, and Ai & Om is a hub for skill-building when it comes to knives. Those skills can change the game big time for anyone who cooks, and when it’s time to buy a knife for yourself or the cooking enthusiast in your life, Chang’s Ai & Om is a great place to go.
I visited Chang at Ai & Om to find out more about the store, his love for knives, and some basics on knife shopping and care.
Here are eight things to know about knives, for cooks of any skill level.
“It’s the extension of your hand. It’s the original food processor,” attests Chang. Ultimately, it’s the essential tool for a chef and for prepping food.
I asked Chang what determines what knife is the best for someone. It’s “how it feels in your hand,” Chang says firs and foremost. “If it feels good in your hand then you are going to enjoy using it.”
Also important is cost, and in turn, value. “If it fits in your budget, you’re going to enjoy using it,” notes Chang. Unless you want to hang it on your wall and just stare at it, a too-pricey knife you’re afraid to use might not be the one for you.
Additionally Chang points out a few basic fundamentals to factor: Edge retention (how long it can cut well after sharpening) and over all life of the knife (how long it lasts, period). Chang adds that some knives are made to last several lifetimes, handed down generation to generation.
Chang says that he’s come to realize that there’s a parallel between people who took care of their knives and the quality of their work in the kitchen. So serious chefs and cooks take great care of their knives.
What does that entail? Here are some tips from Chang: Don’t put knives in the dishwasher, don’t toss them in the tool drawer with other utensils, and don’t store it tip-down. Rinse your knives with warm water and wash gently with a sponge. Dry your knives right away and store in its case, or on a magnetic wall strip.
A major part of caring for your knives is sharpening. You can keep your knives in cutting shape by using the appropriate honing rod for the kind of blade you have. But you’ll also want to have your knife sharpened, like if you’ve got a quality Japanese knife and you’ve been using a ceramic honing rod at home, you will also need to sharpen it on a wet stone. Sharpening tools and methods vary with each knife, though, so it’s important to know what’s best for each knife you have in your collection. One option is to have your knife professionally sharpened.
If you are keen to learn about caring for your knives, you can take a class and master the techniques. Chang offers regularly scheduled lessons for pro and novice chefs weekly. Chang is a big believer in the sense of accomplishment that comes from learning to DIY, and has found personally that ” sharpening itself can be meditative.”
“It’s not about price,” reiterates Chang, who believes for some cooks, it makes sense to invest in a $500 knife because of the value. Others, not so much.
Some things to consider when selecting a knife are what space will you be using it in (big knives don’t work in small kitchens), and what kind of food will you be cooking (for example hard veggies versus cutting bread or fish).
But if you have to pick just one knife, go for the one you use the most–which for many is what’s known as a chef’s knife–a real multitasking tool. “Get one really good knife,” Chang urges. “It’s better to have one thing that’s good than a bunch of mediocre knives.”
Knives “are beautiful functional pieces…and some even are works of art,” acknowledges Chang. He says he doesn’t buy any knives that are just decorative, however all of the knives stocked at Ai & Om are functional, and many have strikingly beautiful aesthetic elements. For example, one knife Ai & Om carries features the handle of a stag horn (not cut, but retrieved after it was shed) which is curved to accommodate a right-handed user. The knife is visually stunning, but it is weighted and balanced for its use in the field as a bowie knife.
I confessed to Chang that years ago I was told that there’s a superstition about giving knives as a gift, but Chang says the fix to that, for believers, is to give money with the knife. “I think a knife is a great gift idea!” Chang says enthusiastically. “Every body has to eat,” he points out, noting that in Vancouver, a life of just dining out can get expensive.
If you’re picking a knife as a gift, make sure you to know if the recipient is left or right handed, and what knife they tend to use the most already (or if they are an avid collector, what they are missing). Generally, it’s great to gift a multi-purpose knife like a chef’s knife, which is of a certain shape and profile that lends itself to multiple uses.
Ai & Om is located at 129 East Pender Street in Vancouver’s Chinatown. Their hours are 11 am to 6 pm Mondays and Wednesdays through Saturdays, and noon to 5 pm Sundays (closed Tuesdays).