The first semi-serious cooking tool I ever got was a Sabatier chef’s knife. Since the 1830s, these fine knives have been made in the town of Thiers, the capital of French cutlery. Turns out there have actually been two Sabatier families making knives there all this time, one from upper Thiers and one from lower Thiers—how French, right? And no, I don’t know which I have, but it had served me well.
But through years of neglect by me and gross abuse at the hands of an alleged professional knife sharpener, it had gone to hell in a handbasket, and I had stowed it away. Occasionally, I would find it deep in some drawer and guiltily pledge to take it to a reputable knife sharpener to either get it ground down into some semblance of a decent knife again or have them give it a decent Christian burial.
This past weekend, I finally made good on my word. I wrapped the old Sabatier in a towel and a plastic bag and headed to Northwestern Cutlery, tucked under the noisiest el line in Chicago [the Green Line] on Lake Street, just west of downtown. Historically, this whole area has been the city’s meat, produce and restaurant supply district. Increasingly, trendy restaurants, condos and other signs of gentrification have been reshaping the neighborhood, particularly along Randolph Street. But there’s still plenty of heavy-duty food handling going on in the area. Amusingly [for me, anyway, since I don’t own one of the pricey condos there], much of the action takes place in the pre-dawn hours and involves trucks and forklifts and guys who have to yell to be heard over trucks and forklifts. Take that, hipster homeowners.
Northwestern Cutlery is an orgy of cutlery and other cool, serious kitchen stuff. Because it caters mainly to chefs and culinary students—the URL on the awning takes you to a culinary students-only site—you get that rush of sneaking backstage, seeing stuff you’re not authorized to see. But they clearly welcome “civilians” too. They cheerfully took care of the Sabatier for me, cleaning it up and returning it to razor sharpness. While I waited. For five bucks.
It’s not quite the same knife it once was. They had to grind away a fair amount of metal to undo the bent point [my fault] and the wavy blade [thanks to the so-called professional knife sharpener]. But it’s the knife I find myself reaching for now, as much out of nostalgia as utility [for the record, though, it’s scary sharp]. And already, its pure carbon steel blade is taking on the patina of a hardworking kitchen tool that’s seen it all. Welcome back, old friend.