Japanese Knife Making - Tharwa Valley Forge

My friends know I'm an easy mark for interesting, unique, and some would say crazy food ideas. Cheesemaking courses, the Steaklocker on Kickstarter, etc. But a couple of months ago a friend sent me a link to Tharwa Valley Forge and their Japanese Chef Knifemaking courses. I was hooked. 

So, when my mate's wife emailed me to say she had booked him into a course and was wondering if I wanted to join him, I jumped at the chance. Little did I know just how much hard work actually goes into making quality knives!

To start, Tharwa is about 30 minutes south of Canberra, or about 4 hours from Sydney. I skipped out of work at 2pm and got down there in enough time to grab a bite before our Friday evening introduction. The first evening consists of a couple hours of introductions to Karim and the other students, a primer on knifemaking, and an opportunity to design our custom knives from scratch. I immediately was reminded of my geometry class days, with rulers, protractors, and French curves. 

After a bit of a browse through Karim's Japanese knife book collection I was set on two types of knives: one for meat and fish, and one for veggies. I ultimately tweaked the first one but these were my initial prototypes.

Saturday starts early, just before 8am. It probably didn't help that I stayed up far too late the previous night, redesigning one of my knives and generally pumped with excitement about what was to come. 

First task, don the gear and fire up the forge. We were given the (apparently) standard warning to not stare into the forge for long periods of time as one can BURN their eyeballs. Yep, I'm dead serious about this. 

Forging begins by cutting the steel to length, heating it up, and the initial forging of the tang and blade. Here I was, thinking it was pretty simple... but I quickly learned there is much more skill involved in the initial phases than just bashing the hell out of the steel with a hammer. Karim warned me, "The more mistakes in this phase, the more you pay for it later." Little did I know...

Once the blade is forged it's time to normalise the steel. This is done by heating it up to an orange colour and then waving it in the air three times. This de-stresses the blade. Then it's brought back in front of the forge for annealing. This allows the blade to be shaped in ground in the later phases.

They're not much to look at but our blades are now ready for grinding. I think I might have walked away had I know just how badly I'd done!

Next is de-scaling of the blade. The fire scale is pretty harsh on sandpaper so this grinder takes the layer of file scale off so that the blade can be shaped and sanded.

It's at least starting to look like a knife. And if you're wondering what the top half is, we used a special hammer to put a pattern into the top of the blades. You'll see that later.

Now comes the hard part, grinding and shaping the blade. I very quickly realised that each and every errant hammer strike while forging was adding to my workload. And I picked too large knives - just to make it interesting.

And in case you're wondering... the blade gets FUCKING hot. I'm still growing my finger tips back.

I have to admit, I was amazed at just what sandpaper can do to a metal blade. Here, I'm shaping heel.

Seriously, take a look back at the blades after the forging process. This is my meat/fish knife on the flat side, ready for hand sanding. 

As an aside, did you realise that the knife is ground differently, depending on which hand is dominant? I didn't! But I learned quickly how to make a right-handed knife and this is why the back of the blade is flat. I've also hand-filed the notches for the guard and handle.

Finally! I have blades that look like knives! They're starting to take shape and all the hard work is starting to pay off.

The last two major steps left in the process are hardening and tempering. Hardening requires a torch to be applied to the blade and then it's quenched in oil. Karim has a Russian-designed welding gun that was intended to be used on the Space Station. It runs on nothing more than water and methylated spirits. He calls it "Natasha". We decide to stand way, way back.

Once the knives are hardened then they are tempered in an oven for a couple hours.

And then more hand-sanding. Patience is a virtue in knifemaking, apparently.

Having hardened and tempered the blade, it's ready for optional acid treating and then a handle. I have to say, I was pretty chuffed at this point. It looks like a knife!

While we sand (more... did I say there's a LOT of sanding?) Karim prepares the handle material we've chosen. 

Now here's a step I'd probably skip in the future - acid treating. It gives the steel a pretty cool matte grey look but my next set will be polished steel on all sides. That said, I don't regret doing it as you'll see from the finished product later.

More... fucking.... sanding.

Well, my knives in all their glory. They're not perfect by any means but they were hand crafted. Time for those handles.

Because I was behind the group most of the time I was the last one to choose my wood. I grabbed two nice blocks of myrtle and got right into drilling the holes for the tangs.

At this point I was a bit dubious that it would all come together. I mean, these handles aren't anything to marvel at. But that said, I like my choice of aqua blue, white, and gold to offset the myrtle in the handle.

Time to glue up.

Karim was right, this was the point where I questioned what we had been working on for two full days!

Time to shape the handles with the bench sander.

MORE hand sanding. But at least this time I can see it all coming together...

The reward. My knives are now complete and all they need is a coat of varnish. That blue Corian really pops.

The finished products. My two are in the middle and my friend's are up top (left-handed freak). I think they're just beautiful. And I know how much work went into each and every one of them. 

So, it's not cheap at about $700 for the weekend, plus travel and accommodation. But what an incredible experience! And I now have beautiful Japanese chef knives to use in my kitchen and to show off to friends and family. I'd definitely go back as I'd like to create a full set for the new kitchen that we're building. 

If you're interested, check out Tharwa Valley Forge and tell Karim that I sent you. You won't regret it...

Tharwa Valley Forge

1 Naas Rd
Tharwa
ACT 2620
Australia

0418 165 433

Chef or Sell-out?!

I love a good Twitter debate, particularly one that is thought-provoking and well-informed. Chef or sell-out? This is a question I’ve been asking myself recently after a Twitter debate about Jamie Oliver and the hordes of products that he endorses. Once relegated to society’s potluck of misfits and miscreants, more and more chefs are becoming “celebrities” – writing cookbooks, starring in TV food shows, traveling the world to speak at conferences, and flogging all manners of kitchen-related products. So, I have to wonder, when is it all too much? When do chefs lose sight of it being “all about the food” and get lost in their own narcissism and their custom-designed-and-branded-picnic-esky?

To find out I decided to talk to a couple chefs to get their perspectives.

What is a Chef?

Wikipedia defines the word chef as, "derived (and shortened) from the term chef de cuisine, the director or head of a kitchen (The French word comes from Latin 'caput' and is a doublet with English 'chief'.) In English, the title 'chef' in the culinary profession originated in the haute cuisine of the 19th century, that introduced many French words into the English language. In non-English European languages, a 'chef' is the head chef; others are 'cooks.'"

So, what exactly is a "celebrity chef" then? Can you be a celebrity in your own kitchen? And I'm still amused when people visit a world renown restaurant and are shocked (SHOCKED!) that the famous "head chef" isn't there cooking each and every meal. New flash people: they probably aren't there most days, if at all.  

I needed to know, what is it really like to be a proper chef? 

For this post I was lucky enough to interview Chef Dean Sprague, a chef of over 30 years. He told me, "We as chefs need to be effective communicators, leaders, artists and without any bullshit...labourers.  Labourers because you are often lifting, carrying, standing, sweating, hot, moving on many different levels.

It is tricky to make a living out of your kitchen, you need to be able to adapt your product and move it out the door in anyway that's possible.  This can include bottling/freeze drying/dehydrating (etc) your recipes with catchy labelling and brand awareness...even if "you" are the brand.  Building a following certainly helps, but it can be fickle as the next trend is just emerging as we speak.  You need to be an effective manager, with one eye on your costs and processes.  Staff, margins and ingredients are just the beginning of the list of expenses that need to be factored into the final sale price."

The Reality

And while most chefs would dream of fame and fortune, the reality is that a significant  percentage of them slave away every day, including weekends and public holidays, serving meals in obscurity.

Chef Dean added, "Being a chef is a lifestyle choice.  It isn't something you can 'do' without it having an impact on other areas of your life.  Let's face it, when everyone else is out socialising your chef is at his peak busy period.

Most family gatherings are held on the weekend (birthdays/weddings/engagements/reunions/funerals).  Another peak time for people in the industry.  You tend to miss out on a social life, this isn't something everyone can adapt to and it takes real dedication to continue to show up time and time again."

He continued, "You know, most chefs 'do' and don't really think about the social implications of our lifestyle.  We all have a deep love for what we do, nothing else can make you turn up the next day.  There is certainly more money and easier job roles out there than cooking for a living!"

The Conundrum

So, who am I to judge when a chef hits it big and has his/her face all over food creation? There was an interesting quote from Marco Pierre-White back when Curtis Stone got his gig in the US on Top Chef and his face landed on some other shows and products. White said Stone, a brand ambassador for Coles and host of TV series Top Chef Masters, should not be criticised for "making a living and securing his family's future. Look at how many lives he's touched, look at how many people he's inspired to come into the industry, how many mothers he's inspired to go shopping for better produce to feed their family. It enriches their lives, so how can you criticise a man for doing it? You can't."

When I asked Chef Dean he said, "It's fantastic when someone breaks through into the mainstream, and their name is recognised.  It doesn't happen all that often."

“Jumping the Shark”

Haven’t heard of the phrase “jumping the shark”? Ever watch Happy Days back in the 70s? In the fifth season they had Fonzie jump a shark on water-skis in Hollywood – it actually was a very popular episode but it’s been forever christened as the moment when a TV show, idea, or person reaches their peak of popularity, begins to decline, and then tries something audacious/ridiculous/just-plain-stupid to drag out their unavoidable slide into obscurity.

Now, I’m going to use the term loosely here but to me, when a chef starts spruiking things that have nothing to do with their food, cuisine, interests, or skills – they've “jumped the shark”. I mean, I’ve seen it all – televised eating challenges, branded coolboxes and plastic goblets, to amusement park themed travel shows. I mean seriously, do I really want to buy a BBQ lighter just because Jamie Oliver endorses it? Does he really think that lighter will make a difference to my cooking? Or how about a Paula Dean keychain that says “Hey, Y’all”? Not interested? Neither am I…

But Chef Dean says, "I'm all for a chef, or any other industry professional making a name for themselves.  The time is right for consumers to have heightened awareness of the products the are using; food especially. 

I'm all for the celebrities that are out there, they do raise the awareness of the industry and can inspire youth to have a go.  The downside is that it isn't all television appearances and book deals.  There is often years of hard work in front of someone to become a known name, many will continue to plug away at jobs with little reward or acknowledgement." So, is the line between chef and sell-out whether the spruiker is furthering the cause of good food, quality ingredients, and better cooking?

In the End

One thing is crystal clear: I'm no chef and I can't even begin to appreciate the hard work, stress, and meagre wages most have to endure. And I'd find it hard to pass up if someone were to drop by Gourmet Male and offer me millions to slap the brand on anything from steak knives to car tyres. But that's the point - should chefs be famous for what they cook, what they cook with, what they eat, and what they stand for? Or should they be famous just because they speak well, look good, or employ the best marketers in the business? 

In his final comments Chef Dean summed up his experiences, "It's not all doom and gloom though, I love my profession and would do it all again. I've formed bonds with people from all walks
of life, and count dozens of individuals as my brothers and sisters. Fundamentally I'm a kid from the suburbs who has made a great career out of cooking, I've travelled the world and worked in places they wouldn't let me in the front door of."

So chefs, just tell me what you're passionate about in the kitchen. Tell me about the food experiences you love and help make me a better cook. I'll never be able to match your skill or creativity but I'll tell you this - my long matches work just fine to light my BBQ, thank you very much, Mr Jamie Oliver.


Tell me what you think. Know any chefs are more sell-out than not? Or, as a self-avowed capitalist, do I even have a right to question?

Chef Jason Saxby - Risotto of Green Peas with Fermented Black Garlic

Today we are very honoured to have a guest recipe from Chef Jason Saxby, the head chef at Russo & Russo in Enmore, NSW. Jason is the 2011 winner of the prestigious Josephine Pignolet Award. He's spent time at Pilu@Freshwater, Quay, Per Se (NYC), The Ledbury (London) and Pollen St Social (London). He has a passion for proper, regional Sardinian cuisine and loves the freedom he has at Russo & Russo to create amazing Italian inspired dishes!

Many thanks to Jason for offering to provide this amazing recipe. Please let him know if you try it and what you think! Even better, drop by the restaurant and taste his food in person...

Risotto of Green Peas with Fermented Black Garlic, Pecorino Sardo and Charred Pea Tendrils - by Jason Saxby (Recipe: serves 4)

For Finishing:

  • 100 g of pea tendrils. (These are the leaves off the pea vine)
  • Good Extra Virgin Olive Oil for finishing
  • Black Pepper in a Grinder
  • 100 g Pecorino Sardo, shaved into rustic but very thin slices with a vegetable peeler (this is a hard sheep's milk cheese from Italy, in the region of Sardinia.)

Vegetable Stock:

  • 2 brown onion
  • 1/3 bunch celery
  • 2 bulbs of garlic
  • also use the scraps of any vegetables you have lying around. As long as its not leafy
  1. Chop all veg into rough 2 cm pieces (mirepoix).
  2. Heat a large pot on medium heat
  3. Add a Tbl of oil. 
  4. Add mirepoix and sweat in the pan until softened but not coloured. Its important you don’t brown the vegetables as it will make your stock brown, which will make your risotto brown.
  5. Top with 2 litres of water. This will make more than you need but its very handy to have around and it will keep for one week in the fridge.
  6. Simmer for half an hour and strain, discarding the solids. 

Pea Puree:

  • 1 kg Fresh Peas (if you can’t get really good peas fresh, then use IQF frozen peas, make sure to get good quality)
  • 1 L of water
  1. Remove the peas from the pods by pulling the tip and snapping while pulling one half of the pod off. Remove peas. Continue until all are done.
  2. Keep a few handfuls aside to finish your risotto, you need about 2 tbls per serve.
  3. Bring the water to boil in a medium pot with a pinch of salt added.
  4. Meanwhile set up a blender and a container for your puree to go into ready as you need to move fast.
  5. Put the rest of the peas in the boiling stock and boil until tender, about 2-3 minutes
  6. Strain the peas, reserving a bit of the water for blending. Blend on high speed in your blender until completely smooth. Adding blanching water as necessary. Season to taste.
  7. Transfer quickly to your container. Set aside.

Black Garlic Puree:

  • 100 g of fermented black Garlic
  • 50 ml water
  • 50 ml balsamic vinegar
  1. Peel skin off garlic.
  2. Add all ingredients to your blender and blend until smooth. Alternatively use a hand blender with all ingredients in the cylindrical jug the blender comes with. Set aside in a squeezy bottle or a container.

Risotto:

  • 1⁄2 small brown onion - Very Finely diced
  • 2 Cloves garlic – minced
  • 250 g Carnaroli rice
  • 100 ml white wine
  • 100g butter, diced and kept cold
  • 50 g Pecorino Sardo, Grated 
  • salt and pepper
  • 250 g of the Pea Puree you prepared earlier
  • Fresh Peas that you reserved
  1. Put Vegetable stock into a pot and put on medium flame to bring to simmer.
  2. Place another medium, heavy based pot on a medium to high flame and add a few tablespoons of olive oil.
  3. When olive oil is hot Add diced onion and garlic and sweat until softened, do not colour.
  4. Then Add carnaroli rice. Heat whilst stirring around until it is very hot to touch.
  5. Add wine and stir quickly. The wine will quickly evaporate.
  6. Immediately Add 3 medium ladles of veg stock. Stir. Keep adding a ladle of stock as your previous ladle starts evaporating. Do not add too much at once. 
  7. Occasionally stirring, keep the rice at a fast simmer as you want to cook it quickly to avoid soft and soggy rice. It should take around 12 minutes to cook your rice until al dente. Depending on your stove and pot. 
  8. Meanwhile heat your char grill, BBQ or a large frying pan ready to cook the pea tendrils.
  9. When the rice is al dente and the last ladle of stock you added has almost evaporated add the fresh peas and the pea puree. Stir well. Bring back to simmer. Remove from heat. Add the grated Pecorino Sardo and the diced butter. Stir until vigorously until it is emulsified and the risotto looks creamy. Check for seasoning. If necessary adjust consistency with a splash of extra vegetable stock or pea puree. You want the risotto to move like a wave when you shake the pan. Let rest for 30 seconds.
  10. Meanwhile toss the pea tendrils with a little olive oil and flash on the char grill, bbq or large fry pan. Season. Remove from heat

To Plate:

  1. Spread risotto evenly amongst 4 plates.
  2. Spread flat by banging the palm of your hand underneath the plate. 
  3. Drizzle black garlic puree over the top. 
  4. Spread shaved pecorino cheese.
  5. Lay charred pea tendrils next.
  6. Drizzle with olive oil and crack fresh black pepper over the top
  7. Serve immediately. Timing is crucial with risotto. enjoy

Enjoy!

Russo & Russo
158 Enmore Road
Enmore, NSW
02 8068 5202

Broccolini - Add Some Spice!

I've always said that the Gourmet Female is an incredible cook. In fact, she's the reason I stepped out of my "pasta in a packet and sauce in a jar" phase and really grew to love fresh and locally produced food. And I certainly don't envy that she's the one who cooks the mid-week meals while I get to cook for show on the weekend. But lately I've been asking if she could do something different with the greens than just steam in the microwave. So this Sunday she asked me to step up and do something different!

To start, I'm a fan of pan frying eye fillet steaks with a little bit of olive oil and smoked salt and that's it. So tonight I decided to throw the broccolini in the pan while the steaks were resting and give them a little fry. Here's what you need:

  • pinch garlic salt
  • pinch smoked paprika
  • pinch dried saltbush
  • pinch dukkah
  • 1/2 lime
  • 1 tbsp olive oil

This is incredibly simple. Once the steaks are out of the pan toss in the broccolini and drizzle with the olive oil. Squeeze on the lime juice and then add the spices. Toss each minute for five minutes and then serve. That's it! Simple. And it's much tastier than just steaming or boiling the veggies. Give it a go!