Love at First Cut: Santoku Meets Grand Canyon River Guide

Love at First Cut: Santoku Meets Grand Canyon River Guide

By: Mandela van Eeden

I am currently writing this while sitting under a tent on my raft during a monsoon in the Grand Canyon. This evening, our commercial expedition is camped upstream of Diamond Creek and my 18’ raft is rocking against the two boats on either side. I am using a red light to compare notes scribbled into a moleskin diary regarding observances made over the past two weeks (and 200+ river miles) while a group of guides took turns using the Santoku knife for breakfast, lunch and dinner prep.

As a fulltime Grand Canyon river guide, we live in the depths of this natural wonder for half the year working back to back expeditions ranging from 13-18 days. We prepare five-star meals for our guests three times a day plus snacks. Every morning, we wake at 4am, start the coffee water and begin our day cutting a platter of fresh fruit. Every lunch, we stop next to the river, set up tables, shop and prepare fresh ingredients for a variety of colorful meals. Every evening, we slice and dice an impressive appetizer and grill filet mignon, salmon, and/or ahi-ahi accompanied by fresh and unique salads (even on day 14). The menu provides a new and elaborate meal everyday with very rare can opening.

Our commercial expeditions are equipped with half a dozen (or more) rafts and a dozen large coolers full of frozen meat, dairy, fresh fruit and vegetables. We work hard to keep our coolers cold and food fresh in the summer desert heat. We work from 4am until 10pm and often in between to make sure our guests get the best experience possible during their time in the Grand Canyon. We often joke that we raft for free and get paid to cook and carry heavy objects. We are sometimes exhausted, dehydrated and overwhelmed but there are two parts of our day when we find solace: meal prep and bedtime.

Mature multiday river guides often bring their own knives on the river as the knife set supplied by the outfitter is often dull and cheap due to constant use and abuse of gear in this industry. The cheap dull knives supplied by “the boss” can cause frustration on one end of the spectrum, and an emergency evacuation in the most extreme cases. Many years ago, while guiding a desert river expedition on the Orange River Gorge, I was using a dull knife to prepare gem squash for our clients. The knife slipped on the round hard shell of the night shade, and I sliced the end of my pointer finger off. After ten hours of driving through the southern Namib desert, I eventually passed out in an HIV client due to blood loss and had my finger reattached at a hospital in Pofadder, South Africa. Since then, I’ve become an EMT and swore to carry at least one quality knife on multiday river expeditions.


Enter The Santoku

From the moment one pulls this piece of art from its sheath, it sparks inspiration in the kitchen (both on and off the river). When working abroad, the etched semblance of the Teton Mountain range reminds me of my home in the mountain west. This edge replaces the traditional “dimples” often found on Japanese knives and prevents food from getting stuck to the blade. For a commercial river guide, anything that helps you save time in the kitchen and get into bed faster is worth the investment. According to their website, “Traditional machine-grinding the dimples can disrupt and distort the precision of the steel's heat treatment. The proprietary process used to etch the "Edge" enhances the performance while optimizing the steel.”

The 6.5 inch blade is made with super high carbon stainless powder steel with a handle composed of a colorful aerospace-grade, fiberglass epoxy composite. Both the blade and handle are “Grand Canyon Proof” -- meaning they are strong, agile and able to withstand conditions comparable to the surface of Mars.

According to six out of six guides: cutting, slicing, and chopping with the Santoku is “Yorokobi” – as they say in Japan: a joy, pleasure, and delight. Here’s are a few key takeaways from the Grand Canyon crew who attempted to share one Teton Edge Santoku over a fortnight:

  • - The width of the blade makes for easy scooping while remaining a lightweight 6.2 ounces.
  • - The reality of a single downward cut and even landing from heel to tip creates less wear and tear on the already overworked wrists of a seasoned river guide.
  • - The knife held its edge while being used more than any other knife on the trip. The stock knife set needed to be sharpened multiple times while the Santoku was as sharp on day 14 as it was on day 1.
  • - It simply “feels good” in your hands from the moment you pick up the tool.
  • - It lives up to its reputation (and name) when it comes to being multipurpose. This knife rocks at carving cantaloupe at 5:00am, thinly slicing tomatoes at noon and cutting T-bone steak at 6pm. Trust me, guides are known to judge each other based on how thin they cut their tomatoes – “Thin to Win”.
  • - When you do find yourself sharpening the knife, it’s much easier to sharpen than some more “traditional” Santoku knives.
  • - Although it’s outside the budget of an average river guide, most guides said they would happily invest in this product because we value quality and durability when it comes to gear (and tools).

There are many ways we can translate the Japanese word, “Santoku”. Whether via the wide variety of ingredients it can handle: meat, fish and vegetables, or to the tasks it can perform: slicing, chopping and dicing, either interpretation indicates a multi-use (river) kitchen knife.

I recently discovered the original Santoku came around in the 1940s. It has evolved around the world over the past ~80 years. There is no doubt that this is the best knife on the market and in the Grand Canyon (yes, including those fancy blunt tip rust proof knives we guides wear on our PFDs). The Santoku is fairly priced for people who recognize and value its ability to stay sharp, efficient and work fast, like Grand Canyon river guides.

Mandela van Eeden is an international adventure guide and producer of “The Trail Less Traveled”. Follow her on Instagram to see our knives and throwing tomahawk in action at @mandelaleola

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