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The Sharp Brothers Help Cooks Keep Their Edge

Jan. 20, 2015
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Courtesy of Sharp Brothers
Julia Child once said, “Knives are your life in the kitchen,” a philosophy that chefs live by every day on the job. For professionals and home cooks alike, maintaining sharp cutlery is important for precision and efficiency in the kitchen and the Sharp Brothers are the go-to service in the area. Started as a family affair by Lee Frederick and his son, Austin, they have evolved into a collective of self-described “knife whisperers,” including professional bladesmith Nate Zimmerman who handcrafts custom knives to order (check out zimKnives on Facebook). Their services cover the North Shore communities of Milwaukee, the Waukesha area and the San Francisco Bay Area where Frederick’s son has recently settled.

Frederick started sharpening knives as a kid while growing up on a farm in southern Illinois. He saw a void as blade sharpeners and their services declined over the years. It’s not so much a dying art, he states, because there will always be a need for knife sharpeners. Over the years, he has apprenticed numerous sharpeners and has seen a resurgent interest in the service.

People often ask what qualities to look for when purchasing cutlery. Frederick says, “90% of what we do is teach people about knives.” Because using a knife is a personal experience (similar to playing a musical instrument), “you have to fall in love with it,” he concludes. When purchasing a knife, Frederick recommends going to a store, such as Sur La Table, where you can try the knife yourself. He also works in tandem with Chef Alisa Malavenda, offering cutlery workshops at her knife skills classes at the Milwaukee Public Market.

All knives need periodic sharpening. A honing steel is often mistaken as a sharpener, but in reality only straightens an edge misaligned from contact with the cutting board’s surface. Many home cooks and chefs use sharpening stones or electric sharpeners to maintain their cutlery. While these are adequate methods, they often remove too much metal or create an uneven edge on the blade.

Professional knife sharpening employs belt sanders to carefully remove metal and create an edge on the blade while avoiding premature wear. Frederick often talks about creating a burr during this process. The burr occurs when one side of the blade is sanded causing the edge to collapse over in the opposite direction. A power wheel then removes the burr creating a sharp apex on the knife.

The Sharp Brothers want you to care about your knives. Treat them with respect and don’t store in a drawer (a wall-mounted magnetic strip is best). Use a soft cutting board (wood or plastic) and avoid hard surfaces, such as granite, metal or glass. Keep a honing steel handy to refine the edge. Gently hand-wash your knives (never put them in a dishwasher).

The Sharp Brothers charge $6-12 for knife sharpening depending on size and condition of the blade. They also sharpen hair-cutting tools, axes, cleavers and lawnmower blades through their drop box locations in Whitefish Bay (4945 N. Bartlett Ave.) and Waukesha (416 S. Comanche Lane). They provide one-day turnaround service. In the summer they can be found at farmers markets in Brookfield, Waukesha and Fox Point; providing door-to-door service along Milwaukee’s North Shore; and at neighborhood block parties. They are currently scouting storefront locations to combine their services with cutlery sales. Visit them on the web at thesharpbrothers.com.

John Reiss is a chef-instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College.

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