Money doesn't buy you happiness, nor does it buy you the best knives at Japanese Knife Imports.
There, in its tiny store in the non-douchey part of Beverly Hills, your knife selection will be determined by whether or not owner and founder Jonathan Broida thinks you can handle the power of, say, a $345 Gengetsu knife. Because they were forged by Japanese craftsmen just for his clientele, he had to wait four years to obtain enough of them.
"I've been known to talk people out of buying expensive stuff because it just doesn't make sense for them," Broida tells me as he carefully sharpens a knife over a Japanese wet stone. He aligns the edge of the knife perpendicularly to his face and squints his eyes to check for evenness and uniformity. Then he takes a sheet of paper and effortlessly slices it vertically. He lets gravity do most of the work, and the knife passes right through, without even the slightest bit of resistance, several times over.
"It's about ready," he says with a smile.
As humble and unassuming as he is, he is perhaps the most beloved figure in Los Angeles' quickly growing food community. Whether you are a line cook, executive chef, celebrity chef, pastry chef, or an avid home cook, you either know him already or may have heard of his legendary knife sharpening skills. His client list boasts the best places in town, and then some. It includes people like Adam Perry Lang and Ceviche Project, as well as the back-of-house staff behind places like Chego, Bar Amá, Fishing With Dynamite, and Spago.
Broida is a self-proclaimed Japanophile. While wearing a traditional samue robe, he informs me that he is not fluent in Japanese, but he answers to his Japanese employee in Japanese.
On a Monday afternoon, there is punk rock playing loudly and his store is filled with a few line cooks drinking tall boys and sipping on Broida's private reserve of black sake that was brewed in 1963. (It looks and tastes more like soy sauce.) Some are waiting for their prized knives to be as good as new again, and some are preparing themselves mentally to drop an entire paycheck on a new Japanese knife for work. Others simply walk in to gawk at his hundreds of custom-made knives and check his job board, which lists openings in kitchens around LA.
This thriving business started out of Broida's home closet in 2010, stemming from his obsession with food and Asian culture, and being a line cook for eight years. "My thought process into picking Asian Studies as my major in college was: I like Japanese food. Their food is tasty, so I'm sure their history and culture is as well ."
He tells me a story of how he showed up to his first cooking gig with a Calphalon knife set, only to be laughed at by his chef. "He made me throw them into the trash can in front of him," he says, chuckling. A week later, he discovered how superior Japanese knives can be, and has stuck with them ever since. He pinpoints his obsession with sharpening knives to a time when a sharpening service messed up his own knives, so he started watching videos on the internet to learn how to do it himself.
He eventually started making phone calls to his favorite Japanese knifemakers and flew to Japan to study and understand the craft of knifemaking. While there, he built relationships with craftsmen. "Now," he says, "these knifemakers are more like my family and friends than my business partners."
What makes Broida stand out is his equal-opportunity approach to selling some of the best Japanese knives available in the US. He is grateful that there is not much foot traffic on his stretch of Beverly Hills, and he's been known to politely decline gift requests from Hollywood agents or other rich people that offer him stacks of cash.
Instead, he chooses to work with cooks to find knives that are best-suited for each individual and their budget. "We make things work for everyone, whether that is $30 knife or a $1,000 one." As well as his overall generosity to the line cooks of the world. "I used to cook—I had no money, too. I've been there and it sucks." If you ask nicely, he may even show you the basics of sharpening a knife for free at his shop, though you could just watch one of his extremely comprehensive how-to videos on YouTube.
Broida took classes in Japan on blacksmithing in order to learn everything there is to know about knives, but he hasn't yet delved into the art of knifemaking due to his respect for the Japanese craft—and for the sake of space and his neighbors in Beverly Hills.
"Besides," he admits, "I love knives, but I'm much more passionate about food and cooking."