Ambitious chefs aspire to be a cut above the rest. That’s why the knives used to prepare food really are a chef’s “most important tool in cooking”, says former sushi Chef and professional knifemaker, Masaaki Saito. His journey from filleting fish, aged just 17, at a busy Tokyo fish market to running a successful online knife sharpening business in Australia is certainly a more unusual career move. Naturally, Life on the Pass takes a deep dive…
It wasn’t long before Masaaki progressed to slicing sashimi, preparing sushi and learning to handle all types of seafood and, crucially, keeping the knives sharp. “I had to spend more than an hour every day sharpening all the knives to make the next day’s work go smoothly”.
All the formative years of hard work paid off. At the age of 28, Masaaki was Sushi chef at the Capitol Tokyu Hotel. Here he stayed for six years, preparing food using the finest ingredients and learning the skills of quality customer service. But was Australia calling?
Reputation for the exceptional sharpness of the blade edge
The clue may be in Masaaki’s keen interest in surfing. So much so, that he would, “get up 4am to go for a paddle then rush to do a 16 hour shift”. It was a working holiday in Australia when he was younger and really “loving the lifestyle” that convinced Masaaki and his wife to move permanently.
At first, Masaaki went to work for renowned chefs, Steven Snow (Fins, Kingscliff) and David Moyle (Longsong, Melbourne) in Byron Bay. At the same time, he started sharpening knives for his kitchen chef colleagues. Straightaway, Masaaki developed a reputation for the exceptional sharpness of the blade edge and creating an interest in his own knife sets.
“I always liked creating something and was also interested in knifemaking”, says Masaaki. However, it was the arrival of his first child that led Masaaki to seriously start a “side business”, sharpening and importing Japanese knives. It would take over from the cooking but Masaaki was slicing up a whole new career, and constantly refining his knowledge, skills and experience.
“Always place the knife down gently from the spine side first”
While working in restaurant kitchens, Masaaki saw immediately, “the chef’s personality or character” in the 3 – 5 basic knives they used for “paring, boning, slicing and bread”. In addition, there would be other different shaped knives intended to complete a particular cutting task “more easily, cleanly and precisely”.
Very early on, Masaaki discovered, “The knives that Australian customers want are sometimes different from the knives produced by Japanese makers”. He also observed the “western style of cutting motions (rocking) would blunt the edge really fast…” His advice would be to, “slide the knife back and forth” without “heavy tapping of the edges” which would preserve the sharpness of the blade edge for much longer.
Maintaining a set of knives is always vitally important. Masaaki’s expert advice is to, “Treat like a baby! Always place the knife down gently from the spine side first, then separate each knife so they never scrape against each other… and finally, wash clean and dry”.
De-stressing by indulging favourite sport, surfing
Masaaki also has important advice for young chefs at the start of their career. His top tip is to, “be humble, generous and stay positive”. He emphasises that the industry can be “tough” but also “rewarding when customers are pleased”. Masaaki loves to visit restaurants where “all staff are treated equally” and believes that, “anger and fear are the worst seasoning”.
Running a business has its own pressures, of course. But when he’s not crafting and sharpening beautiful knives, Masaaki can be found de-stressing by indulging his favourite sport, surfing, and often goes caddying for his son’s golf rounds or watching ballet with his girls.
The former chef still loves to cook “almost every day at home and make a special feast on New Year to maintain Japanese traditions”.