Tools of a Culinary Craftsman; Inside Chris Stewart's Chef's Roll
Chef Stewart opens his chef’s kit to highlight (and explain) some of the knives, tools and trinkets acquired and employed during a career that took him from culinary school on Prince Edward Island, to some of the best kitchens in the world.
By Coleman Molnar
Rural New Brunswick is not a hot bed for culinary talent, by any stretch of the imagination. But for one graduate of the high school class of 1990-something, Chris Stewart, the call to compete for a spot in the best kitchens in the world was heard loud and clear. A hard pivot from engineering to culinary school may have chagrinned a parent or two, but only momentarily, because Chris had found his calling and was soon traveling the world, honing his craft and his knives in kitchens like French Laundry in California, Mission Hill in the Okanagan Valley, Fat Duck in London, Hawksworth Restaurant in Vancouver and more.
Today, as the Director of Culinary Development for Freehouse Collective’s collection of pubs and restaurants, Chris is currently directing his hard-earned talents toward the art of pub food. We pulled him out of the kitchen and away from his quest for the ultimate fried chicken sandwich, to tell us the stories behind some of the most interesting items in his chef’s roll.
You’ve been all over the world with some of your knives and tools. What do you carry it all in?
I’ve had several knife rolls over the years. Currently, I have a very practical version, but you can get some really nice leather ones. I find that those typically don’t have enough space for things.
I have my knives, but I also have all the little trinkets, the things that come in handy on the one-off occasions if I’m working with fish or I need a pair of scissors or lobster cracker or something like that. There are at least 90 to 100 items in there.
Tell us about your Santoku. First of all, what is that?
A Santoku is a traditional Japanese style of knife. I wouldn’t call it generic, but it’s kind of an all-purpose knife. I’ve had my Santoku since I was working at Mission Hill in 2011.
What was the culinary scene like there?
The Okanagan is a chef’s dream: hyper local, farm-to-table. I’d go in the morning to the farm and pick up our orders, and, 90 per cent of the time, grab new things that we hadn’t ordered but that they’d pulled that morning.
How about this long, sword-looking thing?
That’s a one-sided fish knife. Filleting fish is a very graceful thing and it takes a lot of practice. You can tell if somebody is not confident with it because there are little nicks and unnecessary cuts in the fish. But if you see someone move in a very fluid manner when they’re filleting fish, you can tell they’ve done it a lot. It’s one of my favourite things to do, actually.
And where’d you get it?
I got this one in California, in a knife shop in a little town called Yountville, when I was staging at French Laundry. It’s my oldest knife, and it always comes with me. If I pull just three knives and a couple things out of my knife fold to carry with me, it’ll be the cake tester, the Santoku, the fish knife and a deboning knife, all Japanese.
The strength, the steel and the culture of knives. You’ve got to think, the people who are doing these knives, their families have been making them for centuries if not millennia. A lot of these guys and these families produced samurai swords, and then given the change of laws in Japan, when they were no longer allowed to carry katanas in public, many switched to making cooking knives. They definitely hold an edge a lot better than. The strength of the steel is very good. And they’re beautiful.
How about German knives? Are they any good?
The German knives are far more utilitarian. They’re German.
There’s also a cork with a pin it in here…
My cake tester is an important one. It’s just a little pin, but you’ll see a lot of pros use them. Mine is stuck through a cork from a 1990 Château Mouton Rothschild I got to try with the sommelier while working at Eden in Banff in 2005 or 2006. I keep the cork, but change the pin every so often.
What’s that used for?
It’s just a quick reference. You stick it in and let it sit for a second, and then put it on a sensitive piece of your wrist or on your lip—I typically do it on my lip and just keep it in sanitizer. If I stick it into a really nice steak and it’s hot on my lip, I know I’ve overcooked it. It’s definitely of value to a lot of pub cooks. A lot of people will use digital thermometers, and while that’s great, I find that the probes on them are imperfect, and the cake tester is much faster and more reliable.
How about this dagger-looking knife?
That’s a deboning knife. They’re pretty unique looking.
Does it have an interesting story?
My deboning knife was a gift from a good friend who I worked with at Fat Duck in England in 2009. He actually came to Canada after that to be a sous chef for me at Mission Hill, which is where he gave me the knife. (Though, in Japanese culture, it’s seen as bad luck to gift a knife, so you’ll see a lot of Japanese knives will come with a coin, so you can do some sort of exchange.)
Is that a common practice in the industry, to staff with people you’ve worked with at other locations?
Yes. As you make your way toward a chef position, you want to try to build your team. Those environments are very intimate. You’re so close to the people and you want to be with people you know you work well with.
What other important items are in here?
A deba, another type of fish knife. I got my deba in London out of necessity. I was using my other fish knife for larger flatfish and round-fish, but at that point we were working with a smaller round-fish—I think it was seabream—and I needed a deba, which is a one-sided knife with a really thick blade that just kind of glides through bone, no problem. Like my other Japanese knives, these is a lifetime knife if you maintain it.
Speaking of maintenance, what happened to this chipped blade?
This knife was another gift from a Japanese friend, and it was straight from Kappabashi Street in Japan. Sadly, somebody picked it up when I was working at Hawksworth and used it for shelling crab or oysters or something, and completely chipped it out. I walked back to that, but had I caught the person doing it, that’s kick-off territory. It was a sentimental thing. It came from a close friend and meant a lot. I still keep it in my knife roll as a kind of keepsake.
Ouch. So I suppose you’re not so keen to lend your knives to other people then.
There’s a rule in serious kitchens that you don’t use other people’s knives—you don’t even touch them. So, yeah, please don’t.