Karma Knives on the cutting edge - Bladesmith Jabulani Johnson carving a niche in cutlery
Whether you’re a world-renowned chef or a resident cook in the comfort of your home, a knife is essential in the kitchen. Jabulani Johnson understands that a man or woman is as great as his or her tools. He is giving others a cutting edge in the kitchen with Karma Knives.
Johnson, who worked as a restaurant cook for several years, didn’t receive any real exposure to bladesmithing until 2016. The industrial engineer told Food that it took a video he saw on Facebook of a guy making knives to pique his creative interest. It was so mind-blowing and fascinating that he conducted further extensive research. Videos of knife making took up most of his screen time, and he went on to make his first knife in July of 2017.
This new love quickly grew into a budding profession when a family member saw the sharp tools of his labour and connected him with a chef in the culinary industry. “My sister told Chef Brian Lumley that her brother was making knives and she thinks he should try them. From there, I sent him two samples, and he ended up buying two more from me,” he said in a recent interview. That’s when the light bulb went off, giving birth to Karma Knives.
Stemming from the principle of what goes around comes around, he believes that if you invest in good knives or take care of the ones that you do have, then your knives will play their part in performing for you.
Change of focus
The business focus was initially placed on penetrating the market with a low price markup, getting the name out there while perfecting his craft. As a result, sales were slow in the beginning. No one, he said, knew about a knife maker, especially in Jamaica. It mattered not that the demand was present because this type of service wasn’t available, so persons weren’t accepting of the product.
However, once the pioneer of Karma Knives, Chef Lumley, got the name out there, others like Chefs Andre Sewell and Haleem Card, ZJ Sparks and Tania Nethersole all gravitated towards the brand as well. Slowly but surely, this entrepreneur began carving out a niche for himself.
Specialising in kitchen knives, Japanese style to be specific, based on the rich history, style and technique, Johnson shared that he will design with both the user and the tool’s functionality in mind, before cutting to aesthetics. “What makes my knives different is that I put my heart and soul into each piece. That way, I build that connection between the material, myself and the end user. So you find that you end up performing better with a handmade knife when compared to a factory-made knife,” he said.
The cutting edge can also be found in Karma Knife’s signature material. Instead of using the typical stainless steel, he chooses high-carbon steel for durability, flexibility and longevity. “High-carbon steel holds a sharper edge, it is easy to sharpen and stays sharper for longer. It is superior to stainless steel,” he affirmed. But it has its downsides, one of which is its susceptibility to rust. This can be prevented by knife maintenance, keeping it dry and oiled at all times. So yes, greater responsibility will come into play, but he believes that this makes the experience even more enjoyable.
No passion is without its obstacles. For this knife maker, it is trying to change the culture of replacing knives once they are dull. It is essential to own a good knife and keep it sharp and well maintained. “We all know that a dull knife is a very frustrating thing to use. And if you are frustrated, you won’t cook the food well, and if you don’t cook the food properly, it won’t taste good. If the knife is sharp and you’re cutting through, you will enjoy the cooking experience, and your food will taste better,” he shared.
On the business side, finding balance was intially difficult for Johnson. He embarked on his entrepreneurial journey at the same time he enrolled as a full-time student at the University of Technology. When times got busy with both knife work and course work to complete, it was overwhelming. But he has managed to pull himself out of challenging situations, which was all worth it in the end.
He is also thankful for the greatest support system found in family members and close friends, who rallied around him and assisted in whatever way they could. He laughed as he recounted the days when he had to convince them that he was going into making knives, but they came through in the end, believing in his vision.
Being self-employed does come with perks, too, like freedom of expression, flexing the creative muscles and doing what you love, and providing a service for others to enjoy. Moving forward, he would like to venture into standardising his design for mass production, and teach what he hast learnt.
“I want to also explore teaching a knife-making workshop or host a seminar,” he said Johnson.
For more information on how you can get your hands on one of these cutting-edge kitchen tools, follow @karma_knives on Instagram.