Fear of Frying: Culinary Nightmares-Steel yourself

May 5, 2011

By Nina Barrett

Download Story
(WBEZ/Nina Barrett)
Nina Barrett visited Northwestern Cutlery to receive a lesson in knife sharpening.
(WBEZ/Nina Barrett)
Customers ogling the knives at Northwestern Cutlery.
(WBEZ/Nina Barrett)
Marty Petlicki, manager of Northwestern Cutlery, poses with a large knife.
(WBEZ/Nina Barrett)
Nina presented Marty with her set of knives.
(WBEZ/Nina Barrett)
Marty recommends listening to the pitch when sharpening, to ensure that the knife is being held at a consistent angle.
(WBEZ/Nina Barrett)
An oil stone or a wet stone can be used to sharpen an edge that’s become dull.

On Thursdays, Eight Forty-Eight presents the series Fear of Frying: Culinary Nightmares – in which various kitchen phobias are explored as well as how to get over them. 

For this installment, Nina Barrett takes on a dangerous assignment: She picks up a knife.


[MUSIC: Julie Andrews from “Sound of Music,“ singing: Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. When you read you begin with A, B, C…]

When you cook you begin with [SOUND OF KNIFE BEING SHARPENED]. Every serious cook knows that a super-sharp knife is the absolutely most basic kitchen tool. It not only performs better, but it’s actually less likely to cut you than a dull one, because it instantly penetrates the flesh of whatever you’re slicing, instead of slipping off your target and slicing into your own flesh.

Personally, it’s not the knife per se that intimidates me. It’s the long, pointed rod that comes with it. The thing a professional wields like a samurai, and I can only wield in a way that makes me feel spastic.

“I see it all the time,” says Marty Petlicki, manager of Northwestern Cutlery. “People come into our store and they say, how do you use this thing, and they hold up the steel.  And I go, why don’t you show me what you’re doing and I’ll correct you. And 99 times out of 100, they’re applying WAY too much pressure, they’re going WAY too fast, and their angles are all over the place, and they’re just dulling the knife.”

Petlicki is the go-to guru of knife-sharpening for the city’s professional meat-packers, but he also see a lot of serious foodies and regular folks just coming in for a tune-up before their annual assault on a Thanksgiving turkey.

“Now, would you ever get a sushi chef in here, getting his knives sharpened?” I can’t resist asking him.

“Yup,” he says. “We get that, too.”

“But isn’t it part of a creed for them?” I ask.

“It should be, yes,” he says. “But we still get ‘em in.”
The fact that in 25 years in the business, he’s obviously seen it all, makes it easier for me to expose the dirty little secret I usually keep locked up in a kitchen drawer.

“This is somewhat humiliating for me,” I confess, “because this is the set [of knives] I actually use. What I want to know is, can you tell something about my habits from just looking?”

“You know what?” he says. “I can.”

“Okay,” I say. “Tell me what you read on the blades of my knives.”

“Okay,” says Marty. “Well, they’re real dull, and the angle that you’re using to sharpen them is way too high, and you’re flattening the knife.”

"That’s what I was afraid of,” I tell him.

But the prognosis isn’t hopeless, Marty says. As in any relationship where things have gotten a little dull, it can’t hurt to ask for a few tips on your technique.

He demonstrates. “I want to use the full length of the steel,” he says, “and just start off by the handle, right at the top, and you’re going to finish with the tip coming off the bottom of the steel. So you kind of want to get a rhythm going there.  And you want to be consistent with your angle. And a good way to know if you’re consistent is to listen to it. If your angle changes, the pitch will change. I’ll show you.  See, I changed the angle halfway through, so the pitch changes.”

Wow! Maria von Trapp would love this! Just like the kids in The Sound of Music, Marty wants me and my knife to learn to sing a little song together.

“Just go nice and slow,” Marty says reassuringly. “Speed has nothing to do with it.

I’m not pitch-perfect to start with, but with a little practice there comes a moment when, by George, I’ve got it!

“There you go” Marty says, as I get my rhythm going. “The more you do it, you’ll relax, and it’s just a lot of muscle memory.”

While we’re at it, I ask Marty about sharpening stones. Unlike the steel, which is used to maintain an already-sharpened edge, an oil stone or a wet stone can be used to actually sharpen an edge that’s become dull. Think of the abrasive little block you might use to buff your nails. It has a rough side you use first to do the very abrasive work, and then one or two finer surfaces you use to polish things up. Like the steel, the stone can actually do more harm than good to your blade if your technique is off, so you have to listen to what your knife is singing.

“And again you can hear it,” Marty says, showing me. “You can hear that my angle’s staying the same because of the pitch.”

“And if you’re doing it wrong, how does it sound?” I want to know, so he makes the knife go waaawowaawo.

Most home cooks, Marty says, don’t really have to bother with the stone, as long as they get their knives professionally sharpened two or three times a year. His shop has automated belts they use to speed the process up, but they still finish the blades by hand on a series of ever-finer stones. And the result, as Marty demonstrates for me, is literally razor-sharp.

“I don’t know if you can hear that or not,” he says into my recorder, “but that’s the knife shaving the hair off my arm.”

Okay, I’m not sure I want to put my knife skills to that kind of a test. But I am convinced that if I can just steel myself to practice regularly, my knives and I can learn to make beautiful music together.
In fact, I think we’re ready to rock and roll.

MUSIC: Bryan Adams, “Cuts Like a Knife”

Took it all for granted, cuz how was I to know, that you’d be letting go. Now it cuts like a knife. But it feels so right…

For WBEZ, I’m Nina Barrett.

Music Button: Bryan Adams, "Cuts Like A Knife", from the CD Cuts Like A Knife, (A&M)