by Woody Bailey, OCI Chef Instructor, Purchasing Director and owner of Zen Blades
I grew up a Gerber baby. That is to say, I grew up with Pete Gerber, of Gerber Blades, as a close family friend. My first cuts and scars came from the only knives allowed in our house – Gerber knives. Pete is a bit of a character and a clever business man. He believed that to truly enjoy a knife it had to be sharp — wicked sharp. I never learned nor asked how he sharpened his knives, but I was always present when he critiqued someone else’s efforts. It was usually pretty harsh. His blunt honesty sometimes made me cringe, at least until I grew older and witnessed how many ego maniacs there were out there with generally dull knives while insisting that their sharpening method was the best or “only way.” How many of us have watched in awe as some family member steels his carving knife over the Thanksgiving turkey? You probably have witnessed a ballet of the wrist and arm (or, in my uncle’s case, a swagger of the hips brought on by way too much golf) made to look very accurate and practiced. Thank God for him the turkey cooperated in making his full press look like an honest carving. Once compressed to becoming nearly flat, the bird would eventually relent and dinner would be served. Most of us grow up believing that this is how a knife is properly sharpened — right?
Once I finally attended culinary school, I realized the real significance and importance of a sharp knife. I also discovered the variety of sharpening methods offered by my instructors. My “inner Gerber” made me a bit of a skeptic. One of the truths of a culinary education is the realization that there are many ways to cut up a chicken. The skeptic in me ultimately gave way to the realization that the same is true of sharpening. One trick is to find the right teacher, or at least, the path to the right teacher. In my case, the path led to OCI Executive Chef Brian Wilke. His passion for the knife showed in his eyes. Chef Wilke can dice an onion behind his back. He loves testing the students knives for sharpness, never giving any warning first.
At the end of the day, a quality knife, properly sharpened, is a prerequisite to developing proper technique and skills in the kitchen. NOTHING is more rewarding than a sharp knife. This begs the question — what exactly is a sharp knife? In my world, there are only two really great tests (for a chef’s knife). The first is drawing the knife through a tomato from tip to bolster (see image). A sharp knife will pass through the tomato, reaching the cutting board with no pressure applied by the user. The most common test, however, is to rest the bevel edge on your thumb nail at about an 18 degree angle. If the knife is sharp, it should hold. No pushing or carving of the thumb nail is required. Just rest the knife at multiple locations along the bevel. If this makes you cringe, a pastry brush can be substituted for the thumbnail. If it slides easily, your edge is either rolled or blunt and in need of sharpening.
A quality chef’s knife is usually pretty expensive, so removing precious steel by sharpening should be done only when necessary (aggressive stroking on a steel or diamond steel, just like dear old Dad’s performance at turkey time, does exactly that). But, after a knife has been professionally sharpened, or properly sharpened on a stone, usually all that is required is a realigning. The most clever trick I’ve found for doing that (which doubles as a great parlor trick) is to turn a ceramic plate upside-down on a non-skid surface (a wet dish towel will do the trick). Be certain the raised rim of the bottom of the plate is smooth and not chipped or damaged. Next, draw your knife (the sharp part) across the rim at about a 22 degree angle (90 degrees is straight up, 45 degrees is half of that, 22 degrees is half of that) applying about one pound of downward pressure (push on a scale to get a feel for that). Perform two or three strokes per side, then test again for sharpness. 99% of the time your sharp edge is brought right back where you want it.
I love sharpening knives as much as I love using a sharp knife. With just a little practice and a reasonable amount of confidence anyone can take the work out of preparing food for friends and family.