Get an edge: Philippe Saraiva on sharpening your knives

Get an edge: Philippe Saraiva on sharpening your knives

Cooking instructor Philippe Saraiva is serious about knives. And as a purist and aficionado who owns over 150 knives of various sizes and provenance, he throws down the gauntlet on how important it is to keep your knife sharp.

“It doesn’t matter what price you pay for a knife, whether a dollar or a thousand dollars, if it’s not sharp that’s not a knife,” Saraiva says.

“People spend too much time with the composition of the knife and its manufacture, and they forget to ask, ‘How do I maintain it?'”

Conestoga culinary instructor is serious about good sharp knives (Photo/WREats).

At Conestoga College School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts, Saraiva teaches culinary theory, food history, principles and techniques of cookery and restaurant design.

He’s also an accomplished competitive ice carver, having faced-off, chainsaw in hand, against champion carvers from around the world. “I like competing and learning from the best in the world,” he says. As this article was being written, Saraiva was competing in Poland.

With much smaller blades, however, Saraiva is just as careful and exceedingly precise with taking care of them. The harder the knife, the more difficult it is to sharpen and maintain; in a ritual that includes applying creams and emollients like diamond paste, Saraiva works through a process of whetstone sharpening that is studied and in-depth.

Less expensive and less hard knives, he says, can be more easily maintained using whetstones — of which Saraiva has many different types, some costing upwards of $100 and easily more. As for the cost of a knife, you can get a pretty basic Shun eight-inch chef’s knife for around $150 — you can get a Shigeki Tanaka Damascus with ironwood handle for $2,500. Pieces of art, the prices only go up from there.

Japanese knives, the beautiful instruments used for cutting sashimi and preparing sushi, are different in design: they are thinner, harder steel with a finer angle, and they usually only have a single bevel (western knives have a double bevel) which allows a finer and more precise cut.

Some of the tools of the craft (Photo/WREats).

Sharpening any knife comes down to having a couple of decent whetstones — and not the honing steel or “stropping steel” with which you hone your knives and which is often — quite wrongly — called a sharpening steel.

Despite the fact that even many knife manufacturers call them sharpening steels, they do not sharpen your knife: it’s a misconception and an important distinction. It’s also something that Saraiva is quick to smack down with no little agitation. “They can destroy your knives,” he says sharply. “Chefs stole the idea of the steel which was designed for butchers. Few chefs use a steel properly.”

Carefully drawing blade along the stone (Photo/WREats).

The intent of the honing steel is to re-align the tiny micro-teeth of the knife blade. Imagine interlocking your fingers (you know, like the kids’ rhyme where you “open the church door, and there’s all the people”): microscopically, that’s what your knife looks like when you’ve been cutting and chopping, fingers wiggling off in all directions.

Alas, the honing steel is designed only to re-align those teeth, not sharpen your knife. A knife should be drawn carefully and slowly along the length of the steel and at a proper angle if you are using a steel, Saraiva stresses.

As for the sharpening process, there’s a different technique for single-bevel Japanese knives and western knives, but the basic principles are the same.

Saraiva goes through a routine over a series of whetstones on a colleague’s badly battered knife. He has a number of gadgets and accoutrements; he soaks and keeps the whetstones slightly wet when he uses them; he has various tinctures, compounds and lapping films he applies; his sharpening equipment — including strops and waxes and syringes — are spread out over a couple of square meters of a large demonstration table in a College culinary lab.

He checks to see if his whetstone is precise and flat by drawing lines on it with a pencil and seeing how evenly they are ground off. “Stones can go from $4 to over $300, and if it is flat, it will sharpen your knife properly,” Saraiva says. Of course, like a cheap knife, you get what you pay for when it comes to stones.

Saraiva uses whetstones ranging from 270- to 30,000-grit, the term denoting the rating of the abrasive material (the higher the number; the finer the abrasive), which is used to finish and polish the knife’s surface. (Incidentally, a good-quality Japanese 30,000-grit ceramic whetstone approaches $700 or $800.) For such tools, check a place like Lee Valley in Waterloo. 

Saraiva puts a fine finish on a sharpened knife (Photo/WREats).

Working his way through the various stones, and spending several minutes working the knife on each, Saraiva says a proper sharpening can take quite a while. “With a diamond stone, a knife can be sharpened in about 20 minutes,” he says. “It’s more expensive, but there is savings of time in the long haul.”

Saraiva might also use a piece of aluminum or steel, nicely milled and perfectly flat, and embedded with diamonds. It’s gorgeous. “It allows you to sharpen your knives quite quickly,” he says.

Get your whetstone wet by submerging it in water. This raises the grit, Saraiva says. It’s then a matter of turning your knife on roughly a 45-degree angle and, with gentle pressure, guiding it back and forth along the stone, relaxing the pressure moving the blade forward. The angle between the blade and the stone should be about 20-degrees for a double-bevel blade. If you can find a penny nowadays, that’s about the depth of two of them together.

Firm yet gentle and with the proper angle (Photo/WREats).

For home sharpening, Saraiva recommends a 1,000-grit stone and an 8,000-grit stone for finishing.

You work on one side of the blade until you feel a slight burr, and then you flip the knife over and do the other side. “Keep the same angle and the same pressure for the duration of your sharpening,” Saraiva adds. “Let the stone do the work and don’t press too hard.” You’ll want to spend about 10 minutes per stone, keeping them only slightly wet. You should see a buildup of a wet-grit slurry on the stone.

When it comes to strops — the proper alternatives to those nasty honing steels — you can make your own, if you choose. “Kangaroo is the best leather for honing.” He’s not being ironic; that’s according to Texan knife expert Donavon Phillips, he says.

Honing the sharpened blade (Photo/WREats).

Kangaroo or not, to check the blade’s sharpness, Saraiva derives a good dose of humour out of what he calls the “potato trick” that his father taught him — and yet it works. “Cut a potato in half with an knife that isn’t sharp and you can feel tiny bumps.”

Testing a sharp knife: make an “S” cut (Photo/WREats).

Otherwise, try to make an “S-cut” in a piece of paper with your now sharp knife. You’ll have to be patient: it will probably take some practice getting your blade that sharp at home, says Saraiva who has been fine-tuning knives for decades. He adds, however, that when you get there, there’s nothing nicer to have in the kitchen than an edge.

“A sharp knife is a thing of beauty,” he says. “And with a polished blade it’s less likely to stick to foods making your prep work easier.”


[Top image/Maria Siriano via The Kitch’n]


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