Still unsure of the difference between handcrafted Japanese knives and their lowly counterparts? Let Douglas Chang, local chef and owner of the recently opened Ai & Om Knives at 129 East Pender Street, break it down for you.
“Steel is like cooking—there are so many different recipes,” he explains, referring to the alloy that makes up the knives’ blades. “It’s like, you could have a recipe for chicken soup and you could have a recipe for really good chicken soup. The Japanese have a really good chicken soup recipe.”
In technical terms, Japanese blacksmiths use superior formulae for steel, resulting in a thicker, sharper, and much more resistant product than those employed by their competition.
It’s this element that ties Chang’s well-edited stock, which he curates with the help of friends and Toronto’s Tosho Knife Arts owners Ivan Fonseca and Olivia Go. Think nearly 30 lines of high-performance Japanese cutters, including those from industry favourites like Konosuke, Takeda, and Nenohi, made for slicing, dicing, butchering, and everything in between.
But as sturdy as a Japanese knife—or any knife for that matter—may be, it does eventually dull. Then, it’s up to the wielder to bring it back to life, which is why Chang is so passionate about the art of knife-sharpening.
“It takes time to learn,” says the chef turned entrepreneur, who honed his skills at restaurants in Toronto and New York City before taking on local rooms like West, Bambudda, and most recently, Sai Woo. “It’s about geometry, consistency, and understanding your knife and what angle can be put on it to maximize its performance.”
Alongside a range of gorgeous knives (starting at $65), sharpening stones, and cutting boards—all artfully arranged in minimalist wood-and-glass casings—Chang hopes to offer knife-sharpening workshops where he can teach industry pros, home cooks, and culinary keeners how to properly care for their kitchen blades.
In the meantime, Ai & Om—its name a combination of the Mandarin word for love and an abbreviation of the Japanese term for care—will be offering knife-sharpening services throughout its soft opening. A grand opening is scheduled for October.
The shop is, as timing would have it, the second specialty blade store to open in Vancouver in the past month. It’s a fact not lost on Chang, who notes that, prior to August, the Japanese knife selection in the city was scarce.
But the blade buff stresses that there’s no feeling of competition. Rather, he’s excited about the prospect of more Vancouverites coming to understand and appreciate what, in his opinion, is the most important tool in the kitchen.
“It’s the original food processer,” he says. “It’s where everything starts.”