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For Philadelphia chefs, a knife is more than a tool — it’s a slice of life

From $3,000 slicers to plastic-handled "bone crushers."

Chef Hiroki Fujiyama at his restaurant, Hiroki, in Fishtown
Chef Hiroki Fujiyama at his restaurant, Hiroki, in FishtownRead moreMiguel Martinez / Staff Photographer

Hiroki Fujiyama wears a faint smile as he unlatches the unassuming metal case resting on the counter and starts to unpack it. After a few seconds spent deftly sliding handles from scabbards and popping the tops off a succession of skinny boxes, nearly every inch of his quarter-sawn white oak omakase bar is covered in gorgeous steel, sparkling in hypnotic unison, like the Holy Grails at the end of The Last Crusade.

"So this is my knife collection,” the soft-spoken namesake of Fishtown’s Hiroki humbly states, likely aware that very few chefs got it quite like this. There are well over 20 pristine weapons here, an arsenal Fujiyama has amassed over a career cooking in Japan and the States.

Some are incredibly high-end. Stamped with his first name, the duo of elegant emerald-handled custom Nenohi yanagi slicers set him back more than $3,000 — each. He treated himself to the long, thin knives upon earning the top sushi job at Morimoto almost 15 years ago.

“These kinda grew up with me,” he says.

But when asked to identify the one knife that means the most to him, Fujiyama reaches for another yanagi, this one with a less resplendent blade and a discolored wooden grip. “Still beautiful,” he says, turning it over gently in his right hand. It was a good-luck gift from his father, Yoshitaka, a now-retired kaiseki chef in his home city of Kyoto. “He gave it to me when I left to come to this country.” A brand-new purchase to commemorate a major life event? Fujiyama chuckles. “No, he was using it. He’d never give me brand-new!”

For those who make their living in kitchens, knives are often more than just equipment. These functional pieces have a funny way of providing perspective. They serve as tactile reminders of time put in and challenges to come. While one’s given role, chosen cuisine, and everyday prep dictate the contents of a knife bag, the deep personal connection chefs feel with their tools offers an unmistakable slice of life.

When it comes to knives, professionals have specific needs that deviate from the amateur cook’s, according to Steve Pellegrino, a Philadelphia-based bladesmith who crafts custom pieces for local chefs. While most commercial knives are wrought from corrosion-free stainless steel, “Chefs, generally, like carbon steel best,” says the knife-maker, who launched Pellegrino Cutlery in 2017. “It’s sharper, it holds an edge longer, and it’s easier to sharpen when it becomes a bit dull.”

But there’s much more to consider than the metal alone. “As far as ergonomics go, a knife should teach you how to use it,” Pellegrino says. “Just by you holding it, it just has to feel correct.”

One of Pellegrino’s happy customers is Nick Macri, the lead butcher for the multiple restaurant concepts within Center City’s newly opened Four Seasons Hotel. He commissioned one from the craftsman last year, but it’s a piece he prefers to leave at home. For breaking down mountains of raw protein on the job, he relies mostly on affordable, plastic-handled Friedrich Dick and Dexter-Russell cutlery, designed to take a work-a-day beating.

One exception: the Togiharu blade he splurged on after completing an externship at Canoe, a restaurant in his native Toronto, as a Drexel culinary student in 2005. “I still have it, and use it every day to slice fish at the hotel,” says Macri.

Heather Thomason, of South Philly’s Primal Supply Meats, is another local butcher whose favorite knife helps her reflect on the start of her career. While training under Aaron Rocchino at the Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley, Calif., in 2013, she grew fond of her 12-inch Victorinox Forschner, thanks to its versatility. “[They] taught me how to do all sorts of brute-force moves using the heel of this knife, like breaking rabbits into pieces and hand-cutting lamb loin chops,” says Thomason, who’s affectionately nicknamed it “The Bone Crusher.”

A soft-and-hard balance, squaring sentiment and functionality, is a common thread of knife talk. Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon, chef and co-owner of Bella Vista’s Kalaya Thai Kitchen, has long been fond of her 7-inch Shun for its size and aesthetics, but the durable knife also has serious applications behind the line.

“We don’t require a lot of fancy knife skills in Thai cuisine,” she says. But for her khao yum kamin, an elaborate, multi-ingredient rice salad she learned from her mother, “I cut everything very small, so the knife has to be super-sharp.”

The biggest beneficiary of Suntaranon’s labor, other than Kalaya’s diners: her Pomeranian, Tong. “He gets a beautiful brunoise of cucumber and mango, because his mother is crazy,” she says.

For chef Chris Kearse, of Old City’s Forsythia, holding his well-loved Misono is its own kind of career retrospective. “I learned on this thing — I’ve used it at every restaurant I worked at since I was 19,” he says of the tool, a black-handled slicer embossed with a marauding dragon.

He purchased it for $150 in 2002, while he was a line cook at the now-closed Penne in West Philly. It’s been by his side through stages (unpaid stints in professional kitchens) and jobs under the likes of Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, Grant Achatz, and Laurent Gras; nowadays, Kearse relies on it to slice Wagyu eye round and trim tuna collars for a menu all his own.

Though certain models can be astronomically expensive, the price of a knife has little bearing on its true value, at least for Malik Ali, a private chef and caterer who previously cooked at restaurants like Noord, the Dutch, and South. Upon enrolling in culinary school at the Art Institute of Philadelphia in 2010, the South Philly native received an 8-inch Mercer chef’s knife, paid for as part of his tuition. Brand-new, these retail for under $40, but Ali has no interest in replacing his — its once-severe tip blunted and formerly bright logo faded after a decade of hard use.

“I feel like it’s a piece of me,” says Ali. “Looking at it just makes me think about when I first started. And how far I’ve come.”