Bring a knife. Meet me at the back of the house in the garage.
This sounds a little strange, but, OK, I’ll go along with it.
A tall bearded dude with brooding brown eyes rolls up the door and offers his hand in greeting – or does he simply want me to surrender my knife?
The garage, illuminated by a series of clip-on lamps that cast eerie shadows, has two stainless steel surgical-looking work tables.
There’s a Triumph Bonneville opposite them that looks as though it’s ready to make a quick getaway.
Perhaps it’s not too late to turn back – I can run down the sinister-looking alley in the pouring rain.
The dude doesn’t know it, but I have not one but three knives in my tote bag.
The fact that they are about as sharp as cotton balls is beside the point.
Jason Wilkinson, for that is what the dude calls himself, takes them from me before I can change my mind and starts running his long, slender fingers lovingly over their shiny silver blades.
The only thing he wants to slice with them, it turns out much to my relief, is paper.
Jason, a former chef and food-industry professional, is a knife sharpener.
It’s a rare craft that you don’t hear or think much about.
Jason honed his skills during the pandemic in his kitchen.
So the garage – the ugly pipes are covered up with sedate slate-gray drapes – is a huge step up.
The bike is his delivery vehicle; he puts the blades in a leather saddle bag as he revs through Astoria.
Jason, who’s from the semi-small Virginia town of Blacksburg, whose claim to fame is being the home of Virginia Tech, got the idea for Astoria Cutlery from a California friend who happened to mention that restaurant professionals there were driving around sharpening knives to make money during the pandemic.
“I had learned to sharpen knives when I was working in kitchens,” Jason says, adding that Astoria Cutlery, as he called his new business, fulfilled a need as restaurants closed and people began cooking at home during lockdown. “Chefs do it, but they don’t do it well. And neither did I – I perfected my technique.”
One newly sharpened blade led to the next, and before Jason realized it, he had a growing business with more than 300 repeat customers (once you work with a sharp knife, a dull blade just doesn’t cut it.)
It is, of course, not the career he had in mind.
Jason, who is 32, has always been interested in the restaurant industry.
In high school, he worked in a kitchen to, as he says, “put gas in the car,” and when he was studying at Virginia Tech, he paid his way through by working in the college’s campus catering company.
“I quit school – I was majoring in biology/forestry – after my third year,” he says, “because I wanted to take a crack at being a chef. All I was doing was looking through cookbooks during class and thinking about what I was going to cook when I was at work.”
He packed up his stuff and his ambition and moved to Santa Cruz, California, where his father and stepmother live.
He sampled several jobs – he managed a golf course, helped open an American brew pub, worked as a gig dishwasher, was a chef at an Italian eatery that specialized in “high-charred” food and served and cooked in a Dominique Crenn family-style restaurant.
As operations manager for a restaurant app, Jason was transferred to New York City in 2019.
A month before the pandemic lockdown, he moved to Astoria.
When the company shut down, Jason took the sharpening route, briefly working a tech job with a food-delivery startup.
“I was miserable in that job, but I love knife sharpening because it’s instant gratification,” he says.
Soon, Jason was not only sharpening knives, but he also was sharpening the knife-sharpening skills of his customers through two-hour classes held in the garage.
“It’s crazy,” he says. “People are paying to sharpen their own knives.”
Knife sharpening, despite what you might think, is anything but a dull pursuit.
Right after the 2022 election, AOC came to take a class.
And Jason and his girlfriend met over the blades.
“She was a customer,” he says. “For a period of about two weeks, she kept bringing in knives – she probably spent $150 – and I knew there was something more to it when she brought in a cheese knife — who sharpens a cheese knife? That’s when she asked me out.”
Astoria Cutlery is evolving. It really has to because how many knives do you have to sharpen at $2.50 an inch to pay the rent?
Jason’s not sure what’s coming next, but that’s part of the excitement of the endeavor.
“Whatever people express an interest in, I’ll do,” he says. “Some people have been asking about my hosting a date night.”
With knives???? You can’t be serious.
Jason thinks it’s a crazy idea but one that might just catch on.
While he’s talking, he takes the largest of my three knives – the one with the 9-inch blade that looks like it is the prized possession of a serial killer – and studies it under an illuminated magnifying glass the size of a saucer.
He spots a tiny imperfection along the bevel of the blade that is impeding its cutting style.
He takes a whetstone, clamps it in a vise-like holder and sprays water on the top.
He sweeps the chef’s knife back and forth, back and forth in a meditative motion until the edge is smooth.
Next, he polishes the blade twice – once on a whetstone and then on a leather strop to give it a high-gloss finishing shine.
The process takes all of three to five minutes.
When the task is complete, Jason brandishes the knife in the light and holds up a piece of notebook paper.
The blade glints s as it slashes through it like butter.
“It looks good to me,” he proclaims with a grin.
Copyright 2022 by Nancy A. Ruhling