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One Ballard Chef’s New Side Hustle? Sharpening Knives

James Lim of Watson’s Counter takes in dull blades and gives them new life for a fee

James Lim sharpens a knife wearing a pink hoodie and a mask
Watson’s Counter chef-owner James Lim has started an informal knife-sharpening service.
Courtesy of James Lim

From pop-ups to virtual cooking classes to community supported agriculture boxes, Seattle restaurateurs have found plenty of alternative projects during the pandemic. But James Lim, owner of Ballard brunch destination Watson’s Counter, seems to have found a rarer revenue stream: sharpening knives.

“It’s a craft I’ve played around with for a while, and I sharpen our knives here at the restaurant because it saves me quite a bit of money,” Lim tells Eater Seattle. A few months back, the chef started putting the word out that he would take in knives from outside and revitalize them for a fee — around $1.50 per inch ($2 for serrated knives, which are more labor-intensive). “I figured with people eating out less, there might be a need for it at an affordable price point.”

Lim estimates he’s sharpened almost 100 knives for people to date, and continues to take requests. He’s also received some donated knives from people who don’t want them anymore, and has salvaged a few from second-hand stores as well, bringing dull edges to new life. Lim lists the salvaged knives for sale on his Instagram highlights and is considering putting some of the best ones up for auction, with proceeds going to a charity he cares deeply about, like the Humane Society.

In his new role, the owner of Watson’s Counter — a restaurant known for decadent brunch food, such as loco moco topped with Painted Hills brisket — has turned into a bit of a local go-to knife whisperer. One customer, Jennifer Rice, says Lim did such a good job revitalizing a set of knives that had “sentimental value” to her, she’s referred several friends (and posted about the experience on a Facebook restaurant group).

For those who may want to take their knives over to Lim at Watson’s Counter, email is best hello@watsonscounter.com. But the chef also has a few pointers for home cooks who may be unsure about the fine art of knife maintenance.

How many knives does a home cook need?

“Three knives should suffice; a chef’s knife (8-10 inches), a paring knife (3-4 inches), and a serrated knife (scalloped, 10 inches). A narrow and thin straight-edged utility knife in the 6-7 inch range is nice to have, but not absolutely necessary. I use my utility knife for medium sized jobs that require finesse, but otherwise my chef’s knife is doing almost all of the work. After those four, you can branch out and find knives depending on your needs. Just know that some types of knives just aren’t worth investing into as much as others.”

What’s the deal with honing?

“Honing should be done every time you use the knife for a task. If you’re just cutting an apple or something it’s not necessary, but I hone before and after cooking/prepping. It’s low investment maintenance to really extend the life of your knife. Technique-wise it’s also a hell of a lot easier than sharpening. With honing rods, you have to get one that is made of harder material than the knife itself or else it won’t be capable of correcting your edge effectively. I don’t see any reason to own a steel one aside from budgetary reasons, so I always recommend a ceramic rod. The rod should be at least two inches longer than your longest knife so you have ample room to work with. Especially since the price between a 10” rod and 12” rod only differs by a few dollars. Avoid diamond rods because those are taking steel off of your knife when you use it and you’ll end up with an inconsistent edge.”

How long do knives usually last?

“For the average home cook, sharpening shouldn’t really be necessary for at least 6 months. The caveat being that they need to be properly cared for. This means one should use a knife block, hone regularly, wash and dry properly, don’t throw them in the dishwasher, etc. A surprising number of people just throw their knives in their drawers without covers or a drawer organizer (specifically for knives). If properly maintained I honestly wouldn’t expect someone to bring their knives back for another 9-10 months of regular use. For perspective, I sharpen our knives here at the restaurant about every 4 months.”

How does one known when to sharpen a knife?

“Knives should have a nice edge to them where you’re mostly guiding the knife through whatever you’re cutting using just a little pressure. You really shouldn’t need to exert much strength at all, nor should you be sawing back and forth because it’s not penetrating. The more brute strength you use, the less precise your cuts will be and you also increase the risk of cutting yourself. Once your edge is actually worn down from a V to a U; or if you’ve neglected to hone, and that edge is completely bent over, then it’s time to sharpen. The analogy I use is that of proper dental hygiene. Brushing your teeth is like honing your blade, if you don’t do it or put it off then you’ll have to go to the dentist sooner than later to fix problems that were preventable in the first place.”

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