For this article, CTBites spoke with many of Fairfield County’s top chefs, butchers, and professional knife sharpeners. These pros were very blunt about the knives used in most home kitchens: they are dull. Especial fancy “trophy-ware.”
“A cook with a dull knife,” suggests Fairway’s top butcher Ray Venezia, “is like a sharpshooter with a water pistol.”
Much like a gun slinger out of the Old West, this modern-day Paladin has Knives and Will Travel. He carries his complete cutting arsenal in a sleek case … but all that's inside are just two gleaming Victorinox Forshner rosewood knives -- a 6" boning blade and a 12" cemeter – a steel and whetstone.
"That's everything a butcher or a home cook needs to cut and sharpen." Ray claims and then adds the kicker, "These two knives together go for something like 74 bucks!"
This third generation butcher is True Grit when it comes to a sharp edge. "Cutting meat is like slicing dollar bills," Ray offers. "Accuracy and speed determine how much money you make," Cutting to the chase, Venezia feels expensive high end blades are usually honed so fine that the knives quickly lose an acute edge.
”A couple of cheaper, thicker knifes,” he submits, “are easier to keep sharp."
At Napa and Company in Stamford, Executive Chef Arik Bensimon also works with just two knives, a Misono and a Nenox, Japanese blades from Korin in New York. Like Sushi knives, the blades are ground on only one side (the other is slightly concave) and hold an edge longer than the V beveled Western blades. The more acute angle makes re-sharpening faster and easier. (These “chisel ground” blades come in both right and left-handed models.)
Bill Taibe of le Farm and The Whelk in Westport also prefers Asian knives, which he constantly steels with a diamond rod and hones twice a month on a whetstone. Because these blades are usually not rust resistant, they need to be rinsed and dried frequently, especially when cutting acidic fruits and veggies.
"At work I basically use three inexpensive knives, but Ceramic is what I cut with at home” says Executive Chef Matt Storch of Match in Norwalk. "Ceramic knives never need to be sharpened, and they hold an edge for a lifetime.”
Although ceramic is the second hardest material, right after diamonds, Storch cautions that the edge is so thin that it can easily chip in the “Go-Go world” of a restaurant kitchen. At home he recommends not cutting through frozen food or bone with any knife, especially a ceramic blade.
Chef Storch summons three words to describe the key to keeping any knife sharp. “Care, care, and care.” Never put a knife in a dishwasher, always use a wood cutting board (but plastic for poultry because of the salmonella issue). Steel before every cutting and store in a block or a plastic blade guard, never loosely in a drawer. He cautions against magnetized knife holders, which can throw off the alignment unless the knife is thoroughly steeled before using.
One expert suggested that Dante carved a special place in his Inferno for those who open boxes with their kitchen knives.
Many pros discourage using electric knife sharpeners at home, feeling the grinders eat up the blade. They downright shuddered at the thought of running a blade through the knife sharpener on the back of some electric can openers or using the knife tip to pry open, let’s say, a paint cover.
Contrary to popular belief, a dull knife is not as safe as a keen one. “A blade that’s lost its edge can easily slip,” Storch points out. Moreover, a blunter blade butchers, rather than slices, fingers and wrists.
The blades that Fairway, Match, Napa, and most fine restaurants use are actually inexpensive heavy duty knives supplied by a commercial sharpener like R.J. Mase of Norwalk, one of America’s top grinding services. Mase sharpens and supplies tens of thousands of knives a week for butchers, restaurants, and supermarkets from New Jersey to New England. The company also sharpens consumer knives at their home office in Norwalk. At the end of this article, we include prices and turn-around times for Mase and selected professional knife sharpeners in the area.
One such is Nick Jacobs, a colorful character who dubs himself “Nick the Knight,” and makes regular appearances locally at the Westport Farmers Market (where he sharpens blades on the spot.)
Sporting bib overalls (perfect for a Farmers Market), with a jaunty scarf knotted around his neck and a large Hunters Hat plopped atop his head, this former film maker does all his honing by hand at the market in Westport. At home, he may rub his blades on sheets of fine grained sandpaper laid on a flat surface. It’s not as messy as an oily stone, and not as involved as the special belt sander many sharpeners use. He does have a power grinder, but admits “It scares me, and I use it mostly for big blades like machetes.
Jacobs feels that people vastly underestimate how long their knives can keep an edge, especially stainless steel blades from Germany forged by Wustof and Henckels
“To make them rustproof and durable, the blade is forged with softer metal than non-stainless steel,” he says, which is why the knives don’t hold a high performance edge as well as Asian blades. (According to the Rockwell hardness scale, the Eastern blades rate at 61-64, while the Western blades come in 50-53.) But even the harder Japanese blades that he sells at his stand should be touched-up ”every few days”
If a blade is brought to him in bad shape, Nick files it before going to the coarse and finer whetstones. After stoning, he dramatically takes out a stick of common rubbing compound and like a child with a giant crayon, rubs a thin patch of colored grit in the middle of a sheet of paper on his work surface. “I do this instead of using a fancy leather strop,” he tells us, pulling the blade at a shallow 15 degree angle across the paper, probably a dozen or so swipes on each side. As if by sorcery, the green turns to gray, as gossamer thin metal shaving dust is drawn from the blade. For a final touch, he uses a finer grit jeweler’s rouge, also rubbed on a sheet of paper. And then with a flourish, he pulls the knife down another sheet of paper, shearing it as cleanly as a surgeon’s scalpel.
Grinning for a small crowd who have gathered around his table, he summons his inner carny barker and calls out as un-abrasively as possible:
“It’s just that simple and cheap, folks. The stick costs 2.50 at Sears Roebuck and lasts for years. Do this frequently at home and you’ll never need to bring your knives to me.”
Like Nick, Fairway’s Ray Venezia deploys a steeper 20-22 degree angle when working on the coarser whetstone. (To achieve that incline, hold your hand vertical; bring it half way down, then one half more). The butcher also suggests that cooks sharpen the blade to favor their own cutting angle. Although most people think they cut perfectly vertical, their real angle of attack is slightly left or right, and that should be reflected in the pitch of their sharpening.
Water is used on a stone to clear the metal shaving, but it is oil that creates the best slurry to sharpen the knife. Jacobs lubricates his whetstone with mythic Marvel Mystery Oil “because I like the name, and its ingredients are a mystery.”
Indeed, many myths surround knives (e.g. It’s bad luck to give a knife as a gift; drop a knife on the floor and expect a visitor soon after; et al.) But the most common myth is that a Steel sharpens a knife. In truth, a steel doesn’t remove metal, but only re-aligns the edge, which is microscopically rolled after a cut. Steel straightens, but does not sharpen.
That’s why many pros, like Bill Taibe and Nick Jacobs, deploy a diamond steel, which sharpens as it straightens. Both Matt Storch and Nick extol ceramic sticks for finer sharpening, but caution they are brittle and certainly not drop-proof.
While knives may be very personal (“It’s like an extension of my hand,” says Venezia, “with my own blood running through it.”), our experts had only slight differences of opinion on the subject of blades.
And on one point there was certainly no sharp disagreement: any way you slice it, a good knife is a sharp knife, no matter its price or pedigree.
"I could cut all day with a cheap butter knife," Chef Matt Storch says, “just as long as it’s sharp.”
SELECTED LOCAL KNIFE SHARPENING SERVICES
994 Federal Rd Ste 6
Brookfield,CT (203) 775-9488
$4.00-$5.00 per knife.
Same day service, but call ahead to make an appointment
465 Connecticut Ave., Norwalk, CT 203.831.8777
$5.00 per German knife, $7.00 per Japanese knife.
Leave in the morning and pick up late afternoon.
2359 Black Rock Turnpike
Fairfield, Ct. 203-374-1118
Under 6”---$2.00 6” to 8”--$3.00 over 8” and cleavers--$4.00
1-2 day turnaround
NICK THE KNIGHT
860 672 6075
While you wait at the Westport Farmer’s Market
$ 1.25 per inch, and an extra $2.00 if filing needed.
For availability and winter/summer locations check online at www.westportfarmersmarket.com
(Nick offers a group House Call for CTBites readers and their neighbors, provided there are at least 25 knives to sharpen. )
PRO KNIFE SHARPENING
By Elizabeth Colwell of THE WIRE WISK.
$5.00 per knife. (introductory offer for CTBites readers)
WALTER STEWARTS MARKET
229 Elm St.
New Canaan CT 203 966 4848
Drop off Tuesday or Thursday before 10:00 am and pick up the next day.
113 Danbury Rd
Ridgefield, CT 203 894 8273
Drop off Monday, pickup Wednesday
R. J. MACE
1 Testa Place # 4
Norwalk,CT (203) 847-2117
$3.00 per knife, turn around between 1-3 days, depending on number of knives
385 Main St
Ridgefield, CT 203-438-2661
$3.00-$5.00 per knife depending on size
1 week turn around (due to backlog)
(If you have a favorite sharpening service, please recommend in the comments below)