The Cutting Edge: Becoming a Knife Master
In his new book, ‘Sharp,’ Josh Donald talks about how he became a knife expert.
In 2005, I was sitting at the kitchen table in the Bernal Heights apartment I shared with my wife, Kelly, and our nine-month-old son, Charlie. I was freshly unemployed, having been laid off from a decorative-bronze hardware company. It had been part of a short-lived career switch and proved to be a nightmare job that, after a scant four months, ended with tears of joy. At the time, Kelly’s work as a freelance photography assistant was taking off, but the length of her jobs was unpredictable, and we still needed to find a way to buy groceries reliably. As we talked about what I could do to bring in some cash, I sharpened our kitchen knives with my now well-worn King sharpening stone. As I sat there sharpening our knives, I realized that even though I had never mastered it, sharpening knives was something I enjoyed. And I knew that what I lacked in skill, I made up for in determination. And so, with the forty-dollar purchase of a second Japanese stone and a handful of flyers printed on our home computer, Bernal Cutlery was born.
I set up my workbench, an old-school desk, on the sloping floor of our apartment’s utility room. My first orders were a mixed bag: not only had some of the knives never been sharpened, but they’d been bought as part of one of those fifty-dollar sets of a dozen, and like a lot of mass-produced knives, they were resistant to sharpening. I had to work like hell to get an edge on them, which meant my wrists ached and, given the original condition of the knives, I was making about $5.25 an hour. I’d get an order started while Charlie napped, and then later, we’d go out together to pick up more, the bundles of knives weighing down the webbing on the underside of Charlie’s stroller.
It was around this time that I met Frank at the flea market near my house. An older gentleman, he looked a little like Charles Bukowski, used phrases like “you’re still shitting yellow,” and had an extensive knowledge of Persian rugs and of American arts and crafts furniture. He also had a box full of used kitchen knives priced mostly at five or ten dollars. To a casual observer, it looked like a box full of junk, and at first, I had no idea what I was looking at. But I soon discovered that nestled under the unloved (and unwashed) dollar-store knives were elegant, ebony-handled antique French Sabatiers, robust but graceful German blades, and knives made by hand along the leafy rivers of Massachusetts. I started buying those knives and then selling them at restaurants and on eBay, in the process learning which ones would fetch ten dollars and which ones would bring me twenty times that amount. I realized I was onto something great when an older French cook lost his poker face while appraising a hand-forged circa-1900 French fillet knife stamped with a trademark of a fireman running with a ladder. I was selling it for somewhere between fifty and one hundred dollars too little.
Still, I didn’t know quite how good I had it until a few years later when Frank passed away and the boxes of knives disappeared. I continued to find my fair share of antique knives by showing up at the flea market every Sunday at 5:30 a.m. By this point, I was experienced enough to spot the good stuff in faint light without cutting my fingers too often. With Charlie now in preschool, I had a lot more time for orders, and my sharpening had improved greatly, thanks in part to a small whetstone wheel grinder that took much of the manual labor out of the task.
Back then, I was going around offering free sharpening to restaurants to introduce them to my service. I sculpted a lot of cheap, banana-shaped blades attached to dirty white-plastic handles back into the shape of a chef knife, but most places never contacted me again or balked at the five dollars I was asking for knives with blades over 6 in/15 cm long.
I can’t exactly remember which professional kitchen gave me my first order. It was either Blue Plate, a then relatively new restaurant on Mission Street, or Moki’s, a Japanese place in Bernal Heights. But I do have a clear memory of meeting Cory Obenour, Blue Plate’s chef and co-owner, when he pulled up in his car on Cortland Avenue in front of my apartment and unloaded bundles of knives from the trunk. It was an exchange that bore a passing resemblance to the gun and drug deals I’d occasionally see from my apartment window before realtors started calling Bernal Heights “Bernal Village.” Cory, whom I found instantly likable, looked like my junior high school vice principal, but instead of collecting golf umbrellas and prim Italian suits, he looked like he rode a skateboard in empty swimming pools and worked the grill station with equal panache.
Cory had a Swedish carbon-steel Misono knife with a deep gray patina and a dragon etched on the side. I stayed up late finishing his order, and I still remember how proud I was of the way the bright polished bevels of the Misono contrasted against its dark patina. The next morning, I arrived at Blue Plate with a bouquet of knives wrapped in several newspapers held fast with masking tape. I worried that I’d get a phone call saying the work sucked, but Cory was happy—stoked, even—and instead of an angry phone call, I got a nice check.
The knife I sharpened from Moki’s was as life altering for me as the order from Blue Plate had been: it was a traditional Japanese sashimi knife called a yanagi (also known as a yanagiba). The yanagi is sharpened on one side, more like a chisel than a classic Western knife. And whereas you might remove 2 to 3 mm/ 1/16 in of metal along the bevel of a Western knife, it might be 20 to 30 mm/ 3/4 to 13/16 in or more on a yanagi. The one I brought home from Moki’s was my first, and I wasn’t charging for it. It was also significantly misshapen. I started to sharpen it with a coarse diamond stone, and several hours later had taken off only a quarter of the metal I needed to remove to reshape the edge, much less polish it. As I worked through the day into the evening, the ghosts of the ten thousand fish that it had rendered into sashimi awoke and released their fragrance onto my hands, which smelled for the next day or two. But I finally got the yanagi sharpened, and from then on I was entrusted with Moki’s good knives.
Up to this point, I had been largely ignorant of many of the nuances of Japanese knives and steels. It was when I first used a secondhand factory-made 240-mm/91/2-in gyuto to slice through a cabbage that a lightbulb switched on in my head. It was effortless and completely different from what I had experienced with the thicker Western blades I had been using. The only knives that came close were some of the thin-bladed, finely forged old Sabatiers that I’d found in nearly new condition.
Not long after my lightbulb moment with the gyuto, Kelly, Charlie, and I packed up and moved around the corner to a new apartment on the ground floor of a building that had once housed a nineteenth-century grocery store. It was an eventful time. Right after we moved, our second son, Henry, was born, and not long after that, so was the third phase of my business: I set up a workshop in our front room, outfitted it with a nineteenth-century oak display case that Kelly found for two hundred dollars on Craigslist (it had a matching sister case, but we didn’t have the matching two hundred dollars), and opened my unofficial, invitation-only shop. I held monthly sharpening classes on a folding table and bought a dozen or so relatively inexpensive Western-style carbon-steel Japanese chef knives from a source I’d found in the United States to stock the display case and sell. I continued sharpening knives, but now I strapped Henry to my back and used his stroller to cart the knives to customers and boxes of eBay sales to the post office. With the stroller loaded up and Henry on my back, we looked like some latter-day urban version of the Joad family.
As word got around among both chefs and home cooks, my business grew, and in 2010, Bernal Cutlery entered its fourth incarnation when a local landlord asked if I’d like to rent a stall in a small culinary marketplace on Cortland Avenue, in the heart of Bernal Heights. At 90 square feet/8.5 sq m, the stall was basically the size of a dashboard, but it allowed me to finally take Bernal Cutlery out of our family apartment and give it its first real storefront. That stall was also where, after about a year in business, I began directly importing Japanese knives.
In the course of my research on knife makers in Sakai City, the center of traditional knife manufacturing in Japan, I came across the website for Ashi Hamono, a knife company owned by two brothers. I liked that one of them was a sculptor, so I contacted the brothers, and they agreed to sell to me. They, in turn, liked that I did Japanese-style sharpening and felt that I’d be able to give the knives proper care after they were purchased. I didn’t know it then, but I’d just scored big: because of its small size, Ashi Hamono stopped taking new wholesale customers after me. I had gotten in just in time.
Ashi Hamono makes light, thin, single-steel (generally not forged) Swedish stainless-steel and Japanese carbon-steel knives with Western or Japanese handles in several dozen styles and sizes. Deciding which of the company’s knives to order was agonizing, particularly given my shopping budget of less than $2,000. I remember the day the knives arrived, their boxes sealed with duct tape the color of a Band-Aid. That tape was my first indication that these knives were different from the ones I’d sourced domestically: their boxes were light and clean, and their blades were less than 2 mm/ 1/16 in thick. I was besotted. Fortunately, so were my customers. Those knives cut like no other knife I had known and were as much of a revelation as the first gyuto I had used. And compared to the mind-blowing ease of the Ashi, that gyuto now felt like a sharpened screwdriver. It didn’t take long for the Ashi knives to gather a Bay Area following: all I needed to do to win converts was to set a carrot next to a knife.
My store got busy and began to outgrow its marketplace stall. But in 2013, fate once again intervened in the form of an empty—and surprisingly affordable—storefront in the Mission District. It wasn’t big (less than 600 square feet/58 sq m) but more space meant room for more sharpening and more inventory, and four years later, Bernal Cutlery was once again running out of space. We took over a small place around the corner so I could teach sharpening classes to more than two people at a time, fill orders, and upgrade our inventory space from our hobbit-size office, which we climb a ladder to get to.
Scores of professional chefs come to Bernal Cutlery to buy new knives and have old ones sharpened, but so do home cooks. It is for the latter in particular that the shop hosts an ongoing series of knife-skills classes that teach everything from how to dice an onion to how to fillet a fish. That Mission storefront is my little corner of paradise: it’s where I get to practice a craft and share my excitement with the rest of the world.
Reprinted from Sharp by Josh Donald with permission by Chronicle Books, 2018