This story was originally published in Dutch on MUNCHIES NL.
Most chefs have a focused—and rather serious—gaze when standing in the kitchen, but ask them about their favorite knives and their faces light up. The bond chefs have with their blades is oftentimes hard to express in words, but we're going to give it a try nonetheless.
We recently spoke with Roderick Rijsdam (45), a Dutchman from Leiden who was the first to bring exclusive Japanese knives to the Netherlands. He spends his days searching for the most beautiful knives to sell to top chefs in the Netherlands and Belgium.
MUNCHIES: Hey Roderick, why do you love knives so much? Roderick Rijsdam: I've felt attracted to knives ever since I was young. I remember going on holidays to France where my parents gave me a knife. I entertained myself with it the entire vacation. Later on, when I went to cooking school, I really saw knives as something sacred, and when I was 24 and worked as a chef, every month I would buy a Global cooking knife from the tips I received. Global is the first Japanese knife brand that was introduced here in the Netherlands.
I understand you are the reason that there are so many Japanese knives in the kitchens of top chefs nowadays.When I worked in Rotterdam, I saw someone cutting with a knife of Kai, the first high-end Japanese brand I ever saw. Global paled in comparison. That´s when I started learning what kinds of Japanese knives there were in the Netherlands. As there were very little to be found, I started importing from Japan myself—initially just to use them in my own kitchen, but later also to sell them.
What makes Japanese knives so special? The knives stay sharp much longer, because the steel is of a higher degree of hardness, and they are much more beautiful. On top of that, there is usually also a great story behind traditional Japanese brands. Most knife makers in Japan started out by making Samurai swords, from generation to generation. When that became prohibited in Japan, they went into the knife industry. For instance, the brand Tamahagane literally means "the purest steel from which to make Samurai swords." Awesome!
How many knives do you have in your collection right now?A couple hundred. I have furnished a separate room for it in my house. I always have a couple of cases ready with different kinds of knives. I take those down to all the restaurants. That's really amazing, because I myself started out as a chef and now my job brings me to all the Dutch and Belgian top chefs, working at the most beautiful locations and in the most beautiful kitchens. At Benoit Dewitte in Belgium, it was so superb I didn't want to leave. And at François Geurds—the chef from Rotterdam who might be an even bigger knife freak than I am—I saw how his kitchen was built by El Bulli. Absolutely fantastic!
You don't have a store? No. Top chefs have little time. I pass by on appointment, put all my stuff on the table, and stay there up to half an hour or an hour, max. The cook chooses a knife, pays for it, and can keeps it.
Do chefs not go nuts out of enthusiasm when you pass by with your knives?A full case of knives is like a candy store for chefs. The comparison with Harry Potter is sometimes made: like the magic wand chooses its wizard, that's how the knife chooses its chef. There is always that one knife that holds a force of attraction over you, but I would rather not get too sentimental about it. I notice that a lot of people automatically pick the most expensive one, because that one usually just looks the most awesome.
What is the most beautiful knife you have ever seen? A knife from the German brand Nesmuk, priced at 80.000 euro. I saw it and I held it in my hands. It felt good, and I didn't want to let go of it. They also have a knife that costs 30.000 euro, which is completely embellished with stones, diamonds, and glitters. Knives like that are only bought by very rich people, of course—like that famous German television chef who also owns two helicopters.
What´s important to look out for when picking a knife? The most important thing is the hardness of the steel. The harder the knife, the longer it stays sharp—you measure that in Rockwell. Each point increase in Rockwell means that the knife stays sharp a week longer. When I buy a new knife, I test it before I sell it, and if it's still super sharp after one week, I know it´s good.
The knife also needs to lie well in your hand. You need to have a good feeling holding the knife, see if it has a nice balance, and whether the knife is not too heavy for you. A knife with a wooden handle or micarta (layers of linen cased in resin) is the most pleasant. You don't get calluses or blisters from those.
Are knives subject to fashion changes?Certainly. Every year I go to Ambient in France, the largest knife fair in the world. Last year, the trend was something called paperstone—a durable handle made of paper and resin. This year it will be something else.
READ MORE: To the Asshole Who Stole My Chef's Knives
Another thing considered a new trend is that the knife needs to look original. Otherwise it would be easy to counterfeit, and you can find it at IKEA at a much lower quality. The more original the knife, the lower the risk that the knife can be copied. Some knife makers go very far with that. The Belgian Antoine van Loken has knives with whale penis in the handle made for Hof van Cleve, a three-star joint in Belgium. I wouldn't even want it if it were free.
My favorite at the moment is Lannier, a young guy from France that is already making very special knives. For instance, he has one with a skull engraved in the blade, and he has handles made with a Scottish kilt, aluminium scraps, and fluorocarbon. In the latter case, the handle lights up blue when you put in under a bright light in a dark room. Really cool!
Chefs are often quite secretive about where their knife comes from. Why is that? A knife is a piece of identity. Soenil Bahadoer, a Dutch Michelin-starred chef, asked me to find him a knife that fits his roots. He is Surinamese-Pakistani. I have had many knives made for him from Mumbo Jumboland. From where exactly we keep very secret. When a star restaurant orders 20 knives with buffalo horns or deer antlers, I won't be selling the same knives to another place just 100 kilometres away. We respect someone's wish for exclusivity. It´s an unwritten rule in the world of knives.
You also teach masterclasses at cooking schools.Yes. Chefs are being taught too little that they have to maintain their knives themselves. Sometimes I hear that a knife is performing very badly, and when I get them to send it to me, it turns out to be the fault of the client. We try to teach users how important it is that knives are regularly sharpened, and we also demonstrate and sell diamond sharpening stones—a sharpening system that originates from the skating world—and with which knives can stay good for years to come.