Friday, January 22, 2016

Food for Thought with Alex Bielak-Riding along with “Sharp My Knife”

Sharp My Knife - Checking the blade
Riding along with “Sharp My Knife”

Iron Chef Morimoto is quoted as having said “A kitchen without a knife is not a kitchen.” With due deference, I’d add one word to that: “A kitchen without a SHARP knife is not a kitchen.”

Knives are one of the leading causes of injuries in the home, with dull blades counter-intuitively more dangerous than well-honed steel. A dull knife requires greater pressure to slice through meat or vegetables and the chances of the blade slipping, and slicing your finger instead of your celery, are far higher.

As someone that uses his knives a lot, over the years I’ve filled drawers with complex, time-consuming or largely-useless knife sharpening gadgets, before finally settling on a Chef’s Choice electric sharpener, consistently a “Cook’s Illustrated” best choice. I’ve been pretty satisfied with it, but it’s an expensive solution for most people.

Many readers will have heeded the siren bell, handing over their lawnmower blades and garden

shears, and perhaps even their kitchen knives, for a tune up to the man in the truck randomly rolling through their neighbourhood on a summer afternoon. I’ve done it myself! But there is an uncertainty of dealing with someone you don’t know, who might or might not appear on your street at a convenient time for you to have your blades done.

For Andrew Hutchinson, founder of “Sharp My Knife,” there had to be a better way. His mobile, by-appointment, knife-sharpening business, has evolved into an innovative, professional and sensible solution to these issues.

His approach – which began with him knocking on 7,000 doors five years ago - has grown in popularity with both the public and businesses, and he’s recently expanded, with new franchisee, Jeff Lishman, covering the area west of Highway 6, while Hutchinson, continues to cover east of six.

An invitation to “ride along” with the guys came via Twitter, and with echoes of the “Bad Boys, Bad Boys” tune, from the TV show “Cops”, in my head, of course I said yes. I was soon aboard the smartly-logoed black panel van, an assortment of disk sanders and grinding wheels arrayed neatly behind us on both sides of the truck.

As we kibitzed about local restaurants, and the meal Lishman, a foodie himself, had cooked for his wife the weekend before, we headed off to our first stop, Fiddleheads, in Cambridge. Loaner knives went in the door with Lishman: he re-appeared moments later with a motley assortment of about twenty knives from the store.

Hutchinson explained that with the equipment they have they can sharpen pretty well anything with a blade, from garden implements, down to serrated knives, vegetable peelers, straight razors, chisels, papoer cutters, chain saws and pet clippers. There are customers who will pay a premium for more labour-intensive hand sharpening of prized blades. In fact he’s been asked to do swords on occasion, noting the time, preparation and great care that needs to be taken not to scratch a $10,000 blade.

While Hutchinson and I chatted about the business, Lishman, a Kitchener resident, quickly and efficiently put the blades through a 7-step process to bring them back to prime condition. First he assessed the blades under a magnifying glass to ensure there were no cracks or chips in the blade. He then used a coarse, low heat-generating stone, grinding away the bare minimum of steel to re-shape the knife and develop a burr.

Each subsequent step refined angles and sharpness: a 6 inch 320 grit belt, then 80 and 20 micron sanders, and a felt wheel with jeweler’s compound, were all used in turn, before a final swish with a 9 micron ceramic steel, and a final inspection under the magnifier. (See Andrew Coppolino’s video for Grand River Living for a fuller appreciation of the craft and care that Sharp My Knife brings to sharpening a blade.)

Otto Boril, Director of Operations for the Fiddleheads stores, couldn’t have been more pleased with the service, one he’s been using for three years now. “They are convenient and come right to your door: good price, excellent customer service, everything you’d expect from a vendor. How can you do better?” Boril added the service has made “a world of difference to the kitchen staff” who appreciate having sharp knives.

Our next two stops entailed picking up knives at a customer’s place of work, and at a house. In the first instance, Lishman fired up the on-board generator in the parking lot, and in the second, plugged a long extension cord into an outside outlet to start up his machinery. In both cases the satisfied customers had their knives back in less than 15 minutes. There is no doubt about the demand for this service: at each stop we had at least one passer-by come up and ask for a card.

All in all I had a thoroughly enjoyable morning, with two skillful gentlemen. At the end of the ride, as I was taking some last photos, I asked the guys to take a look at some of my knives: I’m glad to report that I received a passing grade: most of them were considered as having a good edge, though Lishman noticed, and very kindly repaired, the tip on one of my older blades - see photos.

Repairs are just one of the services Sharp my Knife offer. They sell premium Wusthof knives, do “Sharp Parties” (think Tupperware), have arranged for drop off points at markets and butchers, and do demos. Hutchinson wants to expand gradually (no Dragon’s Den for him), saying five or so franchises by 2020 “would be good.”

Not to put too fine a point on it I reckon he’s got a great stab at it!

Note: Given the areas serviced by Lishman and Hutchinson, and their trucks, this article is being published simultaneously in “The Hamiltonian” as well as Waterloo Region-based “Rare Republic”, a first for Food for Thought.

For more pictures, click here. 
To see all past columns please see (and “like”) the Food for Thought Archives
Alex (Alex can be reached at fft@thehamiltonian.info or on twitter @AlexBielak)

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