Jacqueline Blanchard knows a thing or two about knives. A chef by trade, Blanchard has cooked all over the U.S., including stints at John Besh's August, Thomas Keller restaurants in Napa Valley and last year at Benu, a San Francisco restaurant awarded three Michelin stars. Two months ago, Blanchard and her partner Brandt Cox opened Coutelier NOLA (8239 Oak St., 504-475-5606; www.nolaknifeworks.com), a boutique specializing in Japanese knives, eclectic kitchen accoutrements and artisan food products. Blanchard spoke with Gambit about opening her business — and prized Japanese knives.
Why did you open a knife shop?
Blanchard: It was a niche that needed to be filled. We've been cooking for the past 15 years and we've both worked coast to coast, but we're Southern kids and we were excited to come home. We felt there was a need, because there wasn't really any place here for a chef to buy a good knife, or even a home cook. One of the greatest things about New Orleans and south Louisiana in general is how serious home cooks are about their everyday cooking — they think of themselves as pros. We wanted to be able to offer serious home cooks the quality we feel they deserve. There are so many chefs (in New Orleans) — it's such a huge part of the economy. Everybody has to buy their stuff online, and you never know what you're getting.
There are restaurant supply stores, and they're great, but that's not what we are. We're very specific. We also wanted to feature some local cutting boards and some other local products to support as much local production as possible. We've gotten into making vinegars, which has been pretty cool, and ... we'll have pop-ups out of here and classes for knife skills and sharpening.
Ultimately, we still want to have a restaurant. This is the first time we haven't worked in the kitchen — it's really weird. We're definitely embracing it — our bodies kind of needed a break and we're getting a chance to finally spend time with our friends and families.
What makes Japanese knifes stand out?
B: Most chefs these days are gravitating toward using Japanese knives. That's not to say German knives, for example, aren't good quality — it's just a matter of preference. They're usually much thinner and sharper, and because they're thinner, they create a cleaner cut with less drag. If you're using a thick, German knife and you're trying to julienne something, the blade itself is so thick, it doesn't create the cleanest cut. If you don't have a sharp knife at work, you're just struggling.
The steel quality is a little bit different too. Sometimes the Japanese steel is a little more delicate, but that doesn't mean that it's of any lesser quality. There's a difference in the handles and the bolster. It's more about the hand-forging than anything for us, and the history — that's sort of a lost art.
We work with certain houses out of Japan who are multi-generational and have been doing this for years. They're master blacksmiths, too. That's been part of the fun, getting to know those guys. These guys do one thing, that's it. They're very personable; they want to know all about you before they do business with you.
What's the most common mistake people make when choosing a chef's knife?
B: People pay way too much money for low-quality steel, like with stamped knives. Those are knives that are stamped out of plates or sheets of metal as opposed to being forged. So the (manufacturer) feeds them through a roller and then there is this shape, that acts sort of like a stencil and the knives are just punched out. ... [I]t's not forged at all, and generally the steel quality is way less than any of the knives that have been hand-forged.
People bring those knives in here all the time for us to sharpen and fix. [I]f there's a broken tip or whatever, it's generally because of the steel quality, and we've seen the metal just flaking off.