Ai & Om's Douglas Chang
Anyone who's ever worked in the restaurant industry or just has a plain admiration for cooking will appreciate the importance of a good knife. For over 13 years, Douglas Chang worked as a chef in kitchens all over, from New York to Vancouver - before switching gears and dedicating a beautiful space in Chinatown to his own passion for the art of all things blade-related. Ai & Om features over 30 brands of hand-crafted knives from Japan, as well as sharpening stones and cutting boards. I asked him about the career move, and why sharpening knives is a both crucial and meditative process for him.
You previously worked as a chef before opening Ai & Om. How has this career move changed your lifestyle?
“Firstly I go to bed much earlier than I did. My evenings are generally more available than they once were. In a kitchen, I would usually be able to get a day or two off a week but now I'm a business owner so I work everyday. In terms of a lifestyle, the earlier bedtimes means I wake up earlier so now I have a fitness routine that I stick to. I also get up earlier to do some work and have a breakfast. I’m not on my feet as much so it’s important to keep moving. I’m also able to meet up with non-industry friends for dinner on the weekend or evenings in general but I’ll be quite honest, most of my friends are in the industry and working at night!”
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up?
"I usually try to exercise at least three or four times a week. I like to do it first thing in the morning. I find it helps to get my day going and also falling asleep at night."
Do you have any morning/daily rituals that you like to do?
"I like to have tea, but in the traditional Chinese Gong-fu tea style. It helps me settle, find a bit of peace and focus on the day."
You mentioned how sharpening knives is a very meditative process for you. Can you describe it?
“Sharpening, like anything that requires a certain kind of in-the-moment focus, keeps my mind on the task. It’s also repetitive, which helps get me into the zone when sharpening. It is a singular movement – but there are many factors to consider when sharpening – so your mind is focused on doing only one move, but also taking into account all the different factors that can affect the edge and the work that you’re doing. There are so many possibilities in the one motion, which can greatly affect the outcome.”
Why do you think it’s important that people learn how to properly sharpen and take care of a particular knife?
“I think that taking care of what we have is more important now than ever. In our world of throwaway culture, it’s important to have tools that we invest not only our money, but time. It builds a better relationship with our tools and ultimately our work. Learning about your knife, which is the original food processor, will help you gain a greater appreciation of how well it can perform when properly maintained. It’s actually safer to work with as well. Thinking about sharpening, which most people consider a mundane thing, will help with cooking I believe. It’s about thinking about the small details that when paid attention to will build up to a better product. Cooking, like most things, isn’t one big secret recipe but a bunch of small things done well. The same goes for sharpening.”
What’s your favourite aspect of owning your shop?
“Being the boss! Of course, I’m not really the boss, the customers are. I would say my favourite aspect is meeting people from different and diverse backgrounds. I joke but I’ve actually met more cooks and chefs in the shop than I have working in the kitchen in this city. I suppose it’s hard to meet other cooks when we spend so many hours in the kitchen.”