Kevin Kent's life is anything but dull.
He doesn't like it in his personal life, his politics, and especially, his knives.
What began as a fascination for medieval Japanese culture and the ancient art of forging blades has grown over 15 years into Knifewear, a chain of five stores selling one-of-a-kind high-end hand-forged Japanese cutlery and razors.
“There's been a renaissance for handmade artisanal products,” Kent explains. “Consumers are looking for products that have beautiful design and made from quality materials.”
Many of the more expensive knives Knifewear sells are made by Japanese blacksmiths by hand, forging thin layers of Damascus steel layering layer for strength. Prices range from $60 to $5,000.
“Ferrari's cost more than Toyotas,” he explains.
For the person who cooks for themselves, spending more than a couple hundred bucks for a single knife might sound a bit excessive, but not for the serious professional chef, according to Kent.
“Every knife we sell has a cool story,” says Kent. “For example, in Ottawa, we carry knives by Moritaka, one family of blacksmiths who have been making knives in Japan continuously for 730 years. Their blades last for centuries.”
Kent first learned about Japanese knives – the holy grail of kitchenware for professional chefs – while a sous-chef at a swank London restaurant in 1999.
It was the outset of foodie culture, chefs as celebrities, and demand for expensive Japanese hand-forged cutlery. A convert of sorts, Kent cut back on his work in the kitchen to sell Japanese knives to his chef buddies out of a backpack.
The knives caught on first with chefs, then with the ambitious eaters who identify as foodies.
“It turns out that every house comes with a kitchen, so the demand was there,” says Kent.
Returning to Calgary, ostensibly to open his own restaurant, Kent took the $8,000 he had saved and instead bought bigger and better knives from Japan, selling them out of a kiosk at a local Farmers' market and making deliveries on his mountain bike.
“I was getting up to 15 calls a day asking when I was going to open a store,” he remembers.
By 2008, he opened his first Knifewear store, a combination of kitchen armoury and funky head shop with t-shirts designed and illustrated by Pierre Lameille. Kent's intent for the store was pretty California casual, just a cool place to hang out, meet other food people and buy a t-shirt. The t-shirt part didn't work out. The knives, however, were so popular, Kent knew he might be on to something he could take nationally.
He opened stores in Vancouver, Edmonton and Ottawa in 2013. He has since added a line of grooming and traditional shaving razors and accessories he named Kent of Inglewood . It's all posted on the store's website www.knifewear.com
“Ottawa was a natural because it has a strong food scene,” Kent explains. “Cosmopolitan and Québecoise, the culture in the capital region is all about good restaurants and international cuisine to knowledgeable clientele.”
He's planning to open a new store in Toronto and a second Vancouver location in 2023 and one in Kyoto at some point.
Kent's passion for all things Japanese means he goes there a couple times a year, has studied the culture extensively and plans to open a blacksmithing school in Japan in the near future.
Working as a chef, Kent says, was the perfect way to prepare for his life as an entrepreneur.
“You work long hours for little pay, you learn to operate creatively within a budget, you have to create a new menu everyday and know what's popular and what isn't going to sell, you make the product and then you pass it off to the delivery personnel called wait staff," he says. "Then you do it all over again tomorrow. It's a microcosm of launching a business.”