In the belly of a custom-outfitted truck near the kitchen door of a local restaurant, Bryan Diliberto, owner of ProChef USA, translates medieval blade mastery into a necessary skill for the 21st-century world of hospitality.
"The knife-sharpening industry has come full circle. Forty or 50 years ago, guys used to sharpen knives in an alley using a grinding wheel," says Diliberto. Today, he's seen his market explode. He attributes this increase to a new sophistication in the kitchen, a result of culinary school graduates. "Chefs who come out of culinary schools all have good knives and are trained about those knives."
Chef Paul Malcolm at Johnson & Wales University agrees, saying that knife sharpening skills are, um, honed during school. He teaches students how to use a tri-stone sharpener, which uses three different surfaces for sharpening. "A sharp knife makes a better tool, as well as a better cut. Cuts with sharp knives heal faster."
But taking care of knives is time-consuming, especially in a fast-paced professional kitchen. While chefs may personally care for their own set of knives daily, kitchens have a variety of house cutlery, usually less expensive knives that need to be sharpened, too. Sharpening is also needed for such items as slicing machines, mandolins, processor blades, Buffalo choppers, even pizza wheels. ProChef sharpens all these blades.
Diliberto established ProChef USA in Mooresville in 1999. He sold kitchen smallwares, uniforms, even shoes; he also offered a sharpening service. Now, sharpening is 50 percent of his business. Today, his company has five trucks and is building three more; he covers both Carolinas and is expanding into Florida.
Each truck is equipped with state-of-the-art sharpening equipment for today's cutlery. You won't find the old-school grinding stone here. In the past, blade sharpening was performed by itinerant tradesmen trained on these grinding stones, buffing wheels, oilstone bricks, sharpening steels and leather strops. "We sharpen. We do not grind," Diliberto says emphatically. "Grinding is the inexpensive way. A grinder knife will eventually fold over and break. We sharpen using the same method [and to the specifications] the manufacturers use. Our edges last longer and stay sharper."
A good knife is an essential kitchen tool, and most chefs are emotional about their knives. Some were given to them by other chefs they worked for. Others were given to them on the first day of culinary school. After all, in Wolverinesque fashion, a chef's knife becomes an extension of his hand.
Diliberto sees all kinds of knives and sells some, too. What is the best knife? Diliberto hedges, "The best knife is the one that fits your hand well." Hand size and weight will determine the best knife for an individual. Some chefs like the lighter feel of a Japanese knife; others prefer the heavier, Western-styled German knives for their ergonomic comfort. A knife held for hours in a professional kitchen will impact a buying decision.
Finally, Diliberto relents, "Best knife: the Chroma 301. It was designed by Porsche." The Chroma has a stainless steel handle, a Japanese 301 steel blade, and is sharpened by a master.
Master bladesmiths create the sharpest knives. In the U.S., the guild is organized through the American Bladesmith Society. The requirements to achieve the rank of master includes building a 10-inch Bowie knife, which will "cut through a 1-inch free hanging rope in one swing, chop through a two-by-four twice, shave a swatch of arm hair, and bend the blade at a 90-degree angle without the blade breaking." In that order.
Home knives, and most professional knives for that matter, need not be that sharp. The easiest way to tell if a knife is dull is to cut an onion. If the blade slides over the surface of an onion rather than cuts though, it needs to be sharpened. If you can hold up a scallion and easily lop off the top, the knife is sharp.
ProChef provides sharpening services to home cooks with a drop-off point at New World Olive Oil & Vinegar in Myers Park. Diliberto sees the home cook as a growing market. "Our best customers are true foodies: people who know the importance of a sharp knife. A dull knife can be dangerous."