My Favorite Knife: Chef Irene Li
20 Cooks, 20 Knives: This month, we’re taking a close look at a chef’s most important tool: her knife. We asked 20 cooks, amateurs and professionals, to share their favorite knives and the stories behind them. While chef’s knives are featured prominently, no two are exactly alike, and there are also a few surprises.
Irene Li is the youngest of the sibling team behind Mei Mei, a restaurant and food truck offering Chinese-American cuisine sourced from fresh, local ingredients to Boston eaters since 2012. A self-taught chef, Irene prides herself on hiring people who are new to professional cooking and training them on knife skills. She once taught herself to butcher a whole pig in her mom’s kitchen. She needed multiple knives for that one, and a very supportive mom.
What is your go-to knife? Kikuichi santoku. It’s a little under eight inches, and has a gorgeous hand-hammered tsuchime pattern. Nerd facts: damascus-style blade, 16 layers of vg-10 steel.
How long have you had it? I bought it shortly before we opened the food truck in 2012.
Why did you choose it? I wish I could say it’s because I have a great understanding of knives — but I don’t really. A lot of chef’s knives feel too long for me, but the santoku was perfect; it felt like something that I could wield with a lot of control. I think kitchen tools need to be practical, but if they’re beautiful too, they’re easier to love and take care of. It just felt great in my hand and was beautiful.
Where did you buy it and how much did it cost? I bought it at KitchenWares in Boston — it was in the $300 range — but I managed to score an industry discount!
Do you sharpen it yourself or pay to get it sharpened? I sharpen it myself.
Where do you keep it? I keep it on a magnetic knife strip in my kitchen at home.
Are you possessive about your knife? Is anyone else allowed to use it?I’m not super possessive, but I don’t usually bring it to work — partially because I’d be scared for it, but partially because I get to do more knife work at home. Being a chef and an owner means I spend more time behind the keyboard than at the cutting board. I have awesome staff with great knife skills, so my job looks more like directing operations than cheffing.
What’s the last thing that you made really well (using your knife)? I really love prepping veggies; shaved cabbage and brussels sprouts are my go to, and they’re the best with a really sharp, comfortable knife.