A secret Sydney knife shop is making food taste better

Myffy Rigby
ProTooling Japanese knife sharpener, Hiroko Kelly.
ProTooling Japanese knife sharpener, Hiroko Kelly. Photo: Janie Barrett

Ever wanted to know where chefs from hatted Sydney restaurants such as Automata, Firedoor, Saint Peter, Ester and Sixpenny shop for knives?

One of the places is ProTooling, almost hidden behind an unremarkable Camperdown door between a dry cleaner and saxophone store just off Parramatta Road.

The specialty blade shop is owned by former sound engineer Paul Tayar and features one of the largest collections of Japanese chef's knives in Australia. Tayar toured the global music festival circuit and mixed for punk legends such as The Ramones and Sex Pistols, before eventually finding his way back to his first passion – food.

ProTooling Japanese knife and tool shop in Camperdown, semi-hidden behind an unassuming door.
ProTooling Japanese knife and tool shop in Camperdown, semi-hidden behind an unassuming door. Photo: Guy Davies

More than 2000 knives are on show at ProTooling. Tayar works directly with artisan bladesmiths in Japan and many knives can take more than five years to create from the time they're ordered. Plenty of blades for sale at ProTooling cost upwards of $2000; occasionally a knife will cost more than $5000.

But why buy Japanese blades instead of something from local knifemakers such as Hendrik Max, Mert Tansu or Tharwa Valley Forge? Well, that's just a matter of personal preference. The real question is, "why invest so much money in a knife?"

"Having a very sharp knife will help food taste better," says Tayar, who developed a taste for cooking and kitchens growing up around Sydney restaurant pioneers Ray and Jennice Kersh of Edna's Table.

Having a very sharp knife will help food taste better

Paul Tayar

"The whole essence of sashimi, for instance, is just in the cutting of it. If you do it with a blunt knife you lose a lot of the liquid, and so on the tongue it tastes and feels totally different."

Consider cutting a tomato with an old, blunt kitchen knife. The juice will likely bleed all over the bench. That's because the thick blade – which probably hasn't been professionally sharpened since focaccia was fashionable the first time round – is essentially mashing the tomato.

"Japanese steel is also much harder than other knife steels and can hold its edge for much longer, which means it can be sharper," says Tayar. "Even a Japanese knife when it's blunt is still much sharper than western knives because of its thickness. They basically fall through ingredients."

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In addition to rare knives, ProTooling sells traditional Japanese woodworking tools (shogun handsaws), gardening implements (iron secateurs) and wood-marking knives so sharp and exact that chefs are buying them to score pork for crisp, evenly marked crackling.

Tayar also employs Australia's only female Japanese knife sharpener, Hiroko Kelly, who has been sharpening knives for more than 40 years. She works tirelessly in the corner of the store with a sharpening block, pushing and pulling blades with lightness and speed, manipulating metal back into shape.

Customers can bring in their dull, misshapen blades and Kelly will correct them starting at $12.50 a knife, no matter the style or brand – no judgment.

Many Japanese knifes at ProTooling sell for more than $2000.
Many Japanese knifes at ProTooling sell for more than $2000. Photo: Guy Davies photographer

So what should you look for when taking the leap and investing? To a certain extent, you might be choosing the knife, but the knife will also choose you.

For chefs, who may be holding them for eight hours or more a day, their knives are an extension of their arms. It comes down to weight and balance. A perfect fit is essential for speed and precision timing. A little like a professional athlete, the correct gear is everything.

For home cooks, similar rules apply – a knife should be comfortable, not too heavy, and feel balanced in the hand. The rest comes down to personal taste, look and feel. Tayar and his team will spend as much time as it takes to find the perfect fit for each customer.

ProTooling Japanese knife sharpener, Hiroko Kelly.
ProTooling Japanese knife sharpener, Hiroko Kelly. Photo: Guy Davies photographer

"We actually don't get as many chefs in here as you'd expect. We get a lot of home cooks," says Tayar. "They start to get a taste for better knives; it's a bit of a stepping stone."

When you look at the way an artisan knife catches the light – the way its thin layers of steel almost shimmer – it's easy to understand why a professional could leave ProTooling several thousand dollars lighter.

That said, entry level blades start at around $200 and are still beautifully balanced works of art. And really, says Tayar, "you only need one good knife."

ProTooling owner and former sound engineer Paul Tayar.
ProTooling owner and former sound engineer Paul Tayar. Photo: Guy Davies photographer

ProTooling, 16 Mallett Street, Camperdown, Tue-Sat 10am-5pm