Talking Knife Sharpening & Selection With A Seasoned Philly Chef

Tuesday morning, Alex Garfinkel of AG Catering hosted a knife sharpening demo for several Philly chefs (and two food enthusiasts, including his friend Adam Elbaum) at Balboa, a row-home in Kensington where he holds supper clubs and various recurring dinners (I wrote about one here), frequently with guest chefs or cooks. I talked to him about the demo (more are on the way), got his insights on what every cook or chef needs in their knife bag, what to look for in a knife, and of course, how to maintain and sharpen them.

Brion Shreffler: Why the need for an advanced knife sharpening class for people who presumably already know enough about this?
Alex Garfinkel: That’s a fair question. The event’s more of a demo and less of a hands-on class. That being said, there’s time for any of the chefs to get in there and practice some of the techniques they see. There are a lot of different styles and techniques when it comes to knife sharpening. Myself, going through at least a dozen kitchens, I’ve been taught and shown at least three or four significantly different ways of how to sharpen a knife on a whetstone. So to be able to watch a master sharpener, someone who’s incredibly proficient at it and turns it into an art, it just adds another level of understanding of what you’re actually doing. I myself was excited to see it up- close. To be able to ask questions. There are a lot of subtleties when it comes to sharpening a knife—there was a lot of nuanced stuff that I didn’t expect to learn. I know that a lot of the chefs came for similar reasons. A few of them just wanted to be involved in the experience because it sounds like something fun thing to do. On top of that, it’s a good time to buy knives at a good discount, as you can request things to be brought to any of these demos.

Balboa Dim Sum Casual Dinner Chefs: Ryan Fitzgerald, Huy Pham, and Alex Garfinkel. by Ronald Waite; courtesy of Balboa.

Alex Garfinkel (far right) of AG Catering (pictured with Ryan Fitzgerald & Huy Pham at a Balboa dinner) hosted Tuesday’s knife demo. by Ronald Waite, courtesy of Balboa.

Can you detail some of those different styles and the rationale behind them?
I guess it’s just how you look at shaping the edge of your blade. I’ve seen it where you can go all in one direction, you can go in small circles, you can sharpen in segments, or all in long, flowing movements. There’s changing the angle of your knife. There’s a 90/10 knife versus an 80/20 versus a 70/30 versus a 50/50 and that’s in reference to the ratio of how much you should sharpen each side. It depends on the knife wielder. The dominant side has been set. You have to feel for where that knife naturally rests and you have to ride that angle, so to speak. The master sharpener was able to better explain things in a way that gave everyone a deeper understanding.He was able to explain certain concepts that a few of us weren’t 100% on. You can go your whole life as a chef and you keep learning.  I myself sharpen my knives all the time and I’m never completely satisfied with the result. It’s good but I know it could be better because I’ve seen what it feels like when a real expert sharpens a knife. It is a big difference. We were using just a few different grades of stone. The average grade people use to get a decent edge would be a thousand grain. To get the sharpest edge, you can go all the way up to twelve thousand. At that point you’re not really sharpening it anymore, you’re polishing or fine-tuning the edge to where it will stay sharper longer. It’s really subtle differences but because it’s such a subtle craft, it does make a difference.

Tell me a little about the master sharpener.
Korin works with one or two certified master sharpeners. I don’t know if you have to take a test for it but this guy is proficient. He’s straight from Japan and works at the Korin store there. So, he goes back and forth and does demos for the store. He does more or less promotion for the knife company. It’s just one of those perks of having a business associated with Koran—you can have him come out and do a demo with a group of chefs at your restaurant where he’ll try to sell you knives at the same time. I’ve been buying knives from them since I was a cook.

What’s special about Korin’s knives?
They carry a wide variety of both Western and Japanese style knives. A few differences are the grip of the bolster and the angles of the edges. It’s very traditional for Western style knives to have a bolster on the heel of the knife that cuts off the actual blade right at the end. In Japanese style knives, the blade goes all the way back as a single piece. It’s one of the reasons I like it, because I like using the back end of my knives. They range in price. You can get a chef’s knife for $150. You can get a chef’s knife for $1,000. They have all sorts of brands. When you get up to the really nice knives, you’re spending almost as much money on the handle as you are on the knife. For example, my most recent knife was a Masamoto. It’s a very traditional Japanese style chef’s knife with a gyuto blade. It was $300—the most expensive knife I’ve bought for myself. But they range. There’s a lot of companies out there that make really good knives. Japanese Woodworker is a cool company. They have stuff that Korin doesn’t carry. But Korin carries all the main brands and they also carry a lot of their specialty brands straight from Japan—very ancient families doing knife and sword work for generations, I’m sure.

Are there any other brands you want to call out?
Besides my newest knife, the Masamoto, there’s Wüsthof. Most chef schools start you off with Wüstoff knives. They’re a great Western knife. Very high quality steel. I have a really cool Swedish steel knife that was reclaimed by this guy in California who takes old tree saws and breaks them down to make these really cool knives. Other Japanese brands: Misono; Nenox is very expensive but also well known within the chef community and very high quality.

How expensive?
The cheapest chef’s knife by Nenox might be between $200-$250. The one I was considering was $280 for a 9-inch chef’s knife. They have really expensive grade handled ones that go up to $800.

When you’re starting out as a prep or line cook, are you going for a less expensive knife, or is it more the mid-range knife?
It depends on the person. You see a lot of young chefs who don’t have tons of money put their money into Global Knives. It’s a nice company. Young chefs are infatuated with knife culture, so they go to places like Korin and they spend their whole paycheck on a really nice knife. So, you’ll see plenty of cooks with the brands that I mentioned. My original knife collection, I had it stolen out of my car. I probably spent $800 on knives during my first few years as a chef. Probably over my lifetime, I’ve spent a few grand on knives.


BV Nguyen (chef de cuisine at Pumpkin) trimming duck breast. An attendee at today’s demo, he was photographed by Jacki Philleo while helming Matyson.

How many knives are you talking in regard to your first collection?
I prob had two chef’s knives, a petty knife, a nice fish boning knife, a poultry knife. At one point, I had a deba, which is a fish knife. I had cleavers. It’s sad, but a lot of knives get stolen working in various restaurants. I actually left a really nice knife in Spain, unfortunately [laughs].

What’s the advice you give to younger cooks about what knives to get?
It’s hard to give somebody advice on what knives to get because it’s like buying a piece of clothing. It’s a personal thing. Anyone who’s interested in buying knives, go to a store like Korin in New York, if they can. It’s great to see it and try out the different knives. You can go online and browse but it’s not the same as being there in person. Find something that feels right to you. Find the weight, find the balance, the style that suits you as a chef. I would also recommend the Misono and Masamoto.

What are the essentials?
To maintain your knife, you should definitely get a whetstone. I definitely recommend a thousand grade as a good starting point. You can get your knife to a super level of sharpness on one thousand grit. If it’s really, really dull, you can start off with something a little more abrasive between two hundred and six hundred and bring it up. People who use extremely sharp knives need a series of stones for that. The rule of thumb, though,  I previously thought, was you work up in grades slowly so you don’t go from a thousand grade to five thousand grade. According to the master sharpener, it doesn’t have to be such an incremental process.

You also need a stone fixer, which is a way to level out the stone after sharpening because you’re not always using the full planar surface of the stone. You don’t want to be sharpening your knife on an uneven plane. You should have a good paring knife. In the paring variety, you can have a bird’s beak paring knife or you can have a serrated paring knife. You should have a boning knife. You can have a fish deba knife if you’re breaking down a lot of fish. A poultry knife if you’re breaking down cases of poultry at a time. A beveled sashimi or chef’s knife. The bevels allow for less surface area for less friction and a cleaner cut. Chef’s knives from seven to twelve inches. On the larger side, a serrated bread knife or a long, traditional meat slicer. A petty knife is a small to medium sized knife, usually from four to six inches long. It’s good for smaller projects. More control. Then there’s butcher’s cleavers, a Japanese style vegetable cleaver—I forget the name.

What are some of things that make it imperative, particularly at the higher level of cooking that you’re doing, to have a super sharp knife?
On a day-to-day basis, you’re using your knife in a lot of different ways. Anything from slicing to chopping, to mincing to carefully dissecting things. When you’re going through your prep for the day and the knife just easily slices through whatever you’re doing, you’re rupturing less cellular structure, you’re keeping the food nicer, fresher, cleaner. It gives it a longer shelf life. You’re less likely to make mistakes. You have more precision. It matters most when you’re doing sashimi or where you want to be very delicate with the product or things that can bruise easily or where you can mess with the texture—like soft fish. You don’t want to crush the fish. It behooves you to have a very sharp knife for making very clean, quick cuts. In regard to sashimi, you have these knives that chefs only break out for cutting fish. They never touch anything else. They don’t even touch the cutting board. They touch the fish and that’s it. Morimoto was one of the first restaurants I worked at and the sushi chefs sharpened their knives twice a day, once at the beginning of service and once at the end of service, and they’d do it with a different stone and they were very meticulous about it. If you’re cutting through something like fatty tuna, you want a little grit in your blade. But for other fish, an edge that’s super sharp and polished will give a much cleaner cut. Anything less and your piece of fish can be roughed up a bit by the blade, resulting in a surface that soaks up soy sauce like a sponge—as opposed to the light coating that you want. The kitchen [at Morimoto] was divided between sushi chefs and all the other chefs. A lot of the young cooks were really taken by how serious knife sharpening and maintenance was to all the sushi chefs. It really was an inspiration at that age.

So you’re never sharpening during service.
You shouldn’t sharpen at all during the shift. You have multiple knives for different jobs and a [sharpened] knife blade should be able to take you through a day. And if you do a little bit of maintenance at the end of every day, you’re going to ultimately have to sharpen your knife less. You might be re-putting an edge on a knife with the steel during service but that’s about it. Anyone who breaks out a stone during service is a jabroni who hasn’t done their preparation. You should start the day with a sharp knife.

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