Since the Covid-19 pandemic blew into Hong Kong in late January, restaurants in this foodie capital have been fighting for their lives. Now with the third wave, hopefully, under control, eateries are finally being allowed four to a table and opening hours approaching some semblance of normality – and profitability.
As they prepare to get back to work, chefs across Hong Kong are sharpening their knives. These tools come in many shapes, sizes, and prices, from the inexpensive chopper used by Cheng Kam-fu at the Michelin-starred restaurant Celebrity Cuisine to Mitsuhiro Araki’s katana-like sashimi knife, which is of such high quality that it could be in a museum.
Knives are more than every-day kitchen equipment. Many of the city’s chefs have an intimate relationship with their favourite blade, recalling exactly when and where they bought it, and how it became an extension of their body.
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The owner of the one-Michelin-star Tate Dining Room, in Sheung Wan, has about 20 knives, but her favourite is the one she bought last year in Japan.
“I went on a tour of Osaka with Relais & ChAteaux (an international association of independent hotels and restaurants, of which Tate is the only Hong Kong member), and one of the places on the itinerary was a knife shop and everyone was eager to go,” Vicky Lau recalls. “Most of the knife makers used to make samurai swords.”
Sasuke is a fifth-generation workshop that makes knives by hand, and customers usually wait three months for their purchase. Luckily for Lau, as the shop tour was arranged in advance, she was able to take one home on the spot.
“I tested it and it is light, well balanced and perfect for everyday use, even fish or meat,” says Lau, having gained a chef’s sixth sense for knives now that she is into her late 30s. “As a woman, this knife is not too heavy, some handles can be too big for me to grip. This one fits nicely.”
She finds the knife easy to rock forwards and backwards when chopping, requiring little energy. However, she must sharpen the knife every day with two Japanese water stones. “I have to polish it otherwise it will rust,” she says.
Cheng Kam-fu, executive chef of the one-Michelin-star Cantonese restaurant Celebrity Cuisine, in Central, tends to use one chopper to prepare all his dishes. Despite its size, the cleaver is quite light, with a very sharp blade.
He is not attached to any particular chopper, he says, but buys a new one about once a year from Chan Chi Kee, on Shanghai Street, in Yau Ma Tei.
“All the Chinese chefs get their choppers there,” says the 66-year-old. “And their woks are good, too; very light.”
Cheng likes this cleaver because its thin blade easily slices his signature salt-baked chicken. “Chicken bones aren’t too hard so you can chop the chicken cleanly,” he explains, showing a picture of a perfectly cleaved roast bird.
For other roast meats, he uses a slightly heavier chopper with a thicker blade, also from Chan Chi Kee.
Gregoire Michaud, 44, is the co-founder of Bread Elements, which supplies artisan bread to hotels and restaurants, and Bakehouse, a bakery in Wan Chai popular for its pastries and loaves.
“Chefs mock us pastry chefs and bakers, saying we don’t know how to use knives,” Michaud says.
As a baker, he uses a lame (“blade” in French) to score the bread. He jokes that it looks like a can opener with its twisted handle. He changes the razor blade attached at one end every three to four days, depending on how many loaves he cuts.
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“When you are cutting 1,000 loaves, you are very busy. You forget about the lame and it goes in the oven and gets stuck in the bread. I’ve seen it happen and it’s dangerous,” he says.
The answer? Hold the razor between your lips for safekeeping, to avoid forgetting it in the tray.
“The main point is to give the bread a place where the steam can escape; naturally the steam will go to the weakest point in your structure. When you allow the steam to go through the bread, you allow it to expand and get the inner structure: the bubbles, the texture, the look.”
Bakers make long or short cuts on the bread to allow sales staff to quickly differentiate between, say, dark rye bread and light rye, he explains.
“As a baker, every cut you make on a baguette or loaf is your signature.”
Nate Green, the chef de cuisine at Henry, the American steakhouse at Rosewood Hong Kong, bought himself a Japanese knife as a reward for the Tsim Sha Tsui restaurant’s successful opening last November.
“I used to work for (British chef) Tom Aikens and he had these amazing Japanese knives,” says Green, 38. “The first time I saw them I was 21 years old – never saw anything like it. Each one cost GBP800 (US$1,020), handmade in Japan. He used them for certain things in the kitchen. At that point, I wanted a nice set of Japanese knives.”
Green says the one he bought at King Tak Hong Porcelain, in Wan Chai, is versatile and has a good weight.
“I wanted a thin blade, but still heavy enough to do the harder working jobs, like cutting carrots, celeriac and other root vege-tables. I saw 10 different knives in the shop and this one had the perfect balance, nice fine blade, easy to keep the edge on it. I haven’t seen a chef’s knife like this one.”
He also likes that it was handmade, so there is no other exactly like it.
“In a career of 24 years, it’s nice to have these things. I use a knife every day so I wanted something nice.”
Mitsuhiro Araki, the chef of The Araki, in Tsim Sha Tsui, is proud of his favourite knife. The blue carbon steel knife, which was made in 1966 – the year he was born – was forged by renowned Japanese blacksmith Okishiba Masakuni, in Sakai, south of Osaka. Araki uses it to slice sashimi in front of guests.
“I bought the knife in Saga prefecture (northwest Kyushu) from a quirky knife shop where they have all the knives standing up straight, with no air conditioning, no dehumid-ifiers, in a natural environment,” he recalls. “All knives at some point will tilt or might bend.”
When he visited the shop, he was shown several options, but he says that when he picked up this particular one, he knew it was for him. Despite 20 years of experience slicing fish every day, Araki was overwhelmed when he started using the knife, which he equates to getting out of a sedan and jumping behind the wheel of a Ferrari.
“It was unbelievable, extremely fast. I had to learn how to control it,” he says. “The knife edge is my tongue, my fingers and my mind, it becomes an extension of me.
“Every customer watches me and the knife, how I cut the fish, which sashimi piece they get, and if the customers touch the sashimi, they say it’s smooth, some slices are thicker, some thinner. The knife decides everything.”
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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