How Starting a Japanese Knife Company Helped Me Embrace My Asian Heritage

Having the business in Japan and working with the craftsmen has helped me identify with my Asian side, and it's helped me feel more positive about it.

Mar 10 2017, 7:00pm

It wasn't like I went to college and decided I wanted to start a knife company. It was kind of a roundabout thing. I'm half-Chinese, but I grew up in South Florida in the 80s. I went to a private school that was pretty much all well-off white kids and myself. Both of my parents are immigrants—my dad is from England and my mom is from Hong Kong. I didn't have any American anchor in my house, and having that half-Asian side was a challenge. People always pick on whoever is different. After I left high school, I decided I wanted to be somewhere that was the complete opposite of that experience, so I went up to Oberlin College—a very multicultural, liberal environment. Oberlin was kind of the beginning of realizing that I wasn't a second-class citizen.

Jeremy Watson. Photo by Evan Sung

After college, I lived in London and then Japan—that's where I began working for another company that made Japanese knives and kitchenware. I didn't have any previous restaurant experience. It wasn't that I always loved knives growing up—nothing like that. But I do love food and Asian food is my soul food, 100 percent. Pork dumplings: That's what I want to eat when I need comfort food.

Blacksmith stoking fire. Photo by Dylan & Jeni

I realized that there was a lot of Japanese craftsmanship going on in the knife world that wasn't being represented outside of Japan. In a lot of ways, it's becoming a lost art—a lot of blacksmiths are getting older, and there aren't a ton of younger blacksmiths coming up to replace them. I learned about knives by working in the industry, handling a lot of knives and seeing and using a lot of different knives, speaking with chefs, and testing knives as well—cooking with them and seeing how they feel. There's no set blueprint, but in a lot of ways, I can tell when I pick up a knife if it's going to be a possibility right away: the blade geometry, what type of metal it's made of, how it feels, the finish on the knife. So usually there's a pretty strong "no" right away, or if it feels like a "yes," we'll test it.

Blades being dipped in antirust coating. Photo by Dylan & Jeni

Back in 2012, when my wife and I started our company, Chubo—it means "restaurant kitchen"—we wanted to try and represent some of these artisans that were making knives, like small-batch producers, and bring them to the Western market. That's our core mission, to give these blacksmiths some daylight and introduce them to chefs and home cooks across the world. When we started, we had no idea if any of the blacksmiths or knife makers would want to work with us, so it was a little bit of a shot in the dark as to how it would turn out. My wife being Japanese helped, of course. I do speak Japanese, but having someone from the same culture helped alleviate some fears that these people might have had. It's been a gradual process. In the first year we had some people turn us down. Certainly, that first year was the most difficult.

Blade being sharpened by blacksmith.

Now I probably spend two thirds of my time in Japan. I'm actually in Tokyo at the moment. We are a US company, but we do warehouse our products and ship directly from Japan to everywhere in the world. We started with only about six brands, but now we've expanded to 14 brands.

Photo by Evan Sung

Having the business in Japan and working with the craftsmen has helped me identify my Asian side, and it's helped me feel more positive about it, certainly. Maybe a better way of saying it is the craftsmanship and the respect associated with that, not the knives. It was a gradual process—going to Oberlin, then moving to London, then Tokyo, and I started to feel proud of my Asian heritage. What I l love about living in Japan is the level of respect for everything in its culture. Whether it's the way things are made or the way people interact—everything about the society there is based on consideration and respect. I think it's pretty amazing.

As told to Alex Swerdloff. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Jeremy Watson is the founder and owner of Chubo Knives, a NY-based Japanese knife and kitchenware distributor.