Crave 10: #8 Kihachi

Beth Stallings, Columbus Crave

Kihachi is one of the few restaurants that, if it never changed, would never lose its charm or its loyal following. Even after decades in this unassuming strip mall, this traditional Japanese respite remains one of our city's best-kept secrets. As other restaurants scramble to alter menus with the Ohio season, the precision, skill and talent of Chef Mike keeps Kihachi a steadfastCrave 10 contender.

Ask chef Ryuji "Mike" Kimura how long it took him to perfect his knife skills and he'll give a deep-chested chuckle. "Oooh, that's a tough question," he answers. After culinary school in Japan, it was years before he was allowed to touch a knife in a professional kitchen.

"The whole learning structure in Japan is up to the chef who's teaching you," his son and fellow cook Tom Kimura explains. "It's not a standard amount of time. Maybe for six months, all he's going to do is grate daikon radish or wash rice or vegetables."

When he was given a knife in the kitchen for the first time, Mike says it wasn't for cutting-it was only for peeling vegetables.

Now decades later, the chef and owner of Kihachi slices perfect little filets of raw, pinkish-white sea bream as he answers questions behind the counter. Precision is everything when working with ingredients like this, he says, because there's no cooking and very little seasoning involved. "If you cut wrong, the flesh of the fish will fall apart," he explains. But cut it precisely, and the flesh will stay in a solid piece. The texture of the fish is just as vital as the taste.

How long did it take Mike to perfect these skills? "Maybe last year," he says with a laugh, adding he still makes mistakes. It's never perfect.

But watch him at work-slicing box press sushi into even portions, fileting an eel without breaking the skin-and any diner could argue otherwise.

In a given day, chef Mike will use four to five knives, each one for a different purpose. Some blades he's had for 20 years, lovingly sharpening each one to a perfect point. Here, the Kihachi chefs share the tools he uses to create flawless classic Japanese dishes.


Deba: This knife is used only for cutting filets and prepping fish, removing heads and bones. "It has a very thick blade, a heavy weight," Mike says, adding he uses a different size depending on the fish.

Yanagi: This is simply for the final cuts of sashimi. "The same piece of fish could see up to three different blades," Tom says. Mike chimes in, "This knife never cuts bone. That's why this is a much thinner blade; it's not cutting anything hard."

Yo-deba: "This is my favorite knife to use," Tom says. "It came as a Western style, but we took one edge off that and made it Japanese." The heel of the blade is thicker, so it can cut through bone and heads of fish.

Usuba: Used strictly for vegetables, there are two styles-a rounded edge favored by those from the Osaka region of Japan, and a flat-topped knife preferred by chefs from Tokyo. "They both feel and cut the same," says Tom, who prefers the Osaka. "This is razor, razor sharp. You don't need to put pressure on the knife; you just let the weight of the knife cut through whatever you're doing." The knife is ideal for fine julienne cuts, especially slicing fresh ginger.

Unagisaki: "This knife has only one purpose, for only one fish," Mike says. The long, thin blade is used on conger eel. The balanced knife can cut through all the little bones inside the eel, but allows the chef the precision to stop before slicing through the skin. "This needs a lot of experience and training. It's the most difficult knife."

Japanese vs. European: Though similar in shape, Japanese knives are sharpened for precision, Tom says. Where the blade of a Western knife is sharpened like a V coming to a single point, a Japanese knife is only curved on one side. "It's flat on one side, so like half a V," Tom says. "So it technically doesn't stay as sharp as long, but it's a sharper edge. It's for more precise cuts. When you cut through, the meat's not getting pushed apart. You get a flat cut."

On cutting: The technique varies slightly from Western teaching, Tom says. "Instead of just using a section of the blade where you rock the knife, which a lot of people in kitchens do, I was always taught to use the entire blade," he explains. "So while holding it the same way, instead of rocking the knife up and down, you're going back and forth, slicing."