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Carve like a pro! Keep your knives ‘Willey Sharp’

November 12, 2021

‘Tiz the season for gathering with friends and family. And it goes without saying that these gatherings almost always involve eating. Whether prepared at home or in a restaurant, holiday feasts deserve to be displayed in the most appetizing way possible. And every cook - both at home and in restaurants -  knows that sharp knives are absolutely essential for attractive preparation of meats and vegetables. A dull knife cannot only shred and crush the food because of the pressure required to pass it through the product, but it can also be dangerous for that same reason. One slip under all that force, and suddenly you don’t have 10 fingers any more (assuming, of course, you had 10 to begin with).

For the last 50 years, holiday time has been the busiest season at Willey Knives in Greenwood. This amazing little store sells everything from hunting knives to pocket knives to scissors and tactical knives - but in November and December it’s all about kitchen knives. And they range from just a few dollars to well over $200, depending on the manufacturing process and the resulting quality.

Patriarch Gerald Willey grew up on a farm and was making knives from scratch at the tender age of 10. His innate talent for the fabrication and maintenance of various kinds of blades has made his store the go-to spot for high-quality merchandise and custom sharpening services. His daughter Geri Elliot and his son Matt help run the retail operation, and Geri tells me that Wusthof knives are among the biggest sellers for home use. Things can get pricey with the top-end knives - especially those made in Japan - but many professionals appreciate the specially heat-treated and hardened steel that holds an edge longer. Knives represent a major investment for people who cut stuff for a living, so many chefs maintain a collection of their favorites that they use no matter where they are cooking. The choice of a knife must be an educated one, and Willey Knives has over 2,000 available for purchase.

One of the interesting aspects of their business is their knife exchange program. A restaurant can dull a set of knives quickly, and many kitchens are so busy that time spent sharpening is time that guests are waiting for their food. So Willey Knives delivers a set of newly sharpened instruments every few weeks or so, taking the used set back to the shop for professional sharpening. The cost depends on the quality and longevity the restaurant prefers.

Holiday dinners need to look as good as they taste, and knives must be sharp for clean, attractive cuts. Mr. Willey tells me that an 8- or 9-inch carving knife is ideal for carving a turkey. Additionally, a thinner, less broad blade will glide through the meat without too much unnecessary friction. I asked him to get specific, and he advised that the turkey should be allowed to rest (about a minute per pound) before cutting into it. He then removes the breasts whole from the bone and places them in a row down the center of the serving platter, slicing them into even slices for an appetizing - and professional - presentation. Then, using a shorter knife (like a paring knife) Mr. Willey removes the legs and thighs by cutting through the joint (not the bone). The meat is then sliced and placed on either side of the breasts, resulting in an appetizing, family-friendly platter.

It’s inevitable that any knife - no matter what the quality - will dull at some point. Sharpening at home is easy, and Gerald demonstrated the technique: Place a good sharpening steel (honing rod) vertically, point-down, onto a towel or cutting board, maintaining a firm grip on the handle. Place your knife against the steel at a 90-degree angle, then tilt the knife up to 45 degrees (relative to the steel) and then again to cut that angle in half to approximately 22.5 degrees, forming sort of a “V” between the steel and the knife blade. Then, using a fair amount of pressure while maintaining that 22.5 degree angle, move the blade edge down the steel while simultaneously sliding the edge toward you from the handle to the tip. Repeat about 10 times on each side, then repeat 2 times per side with less pressure. Obsessive foodies will of course want a perfect edge, which can be achieved by finishing the sharpening process using a “crock stick” - similar in shape to the steel, but made of ceramic - to create a fine edge. The ceramic also keeps the knife sharp longer.

Willey Knives provides professional sharpening services, and you can make your knives good as new by calling for a while-U-wait sharpening appointment. And you won’t be bored while-U-wait: At 78 years old, Gerald Willey is still going strong; scurrying around the shop answering questions, demonstrating sharpening techniques (which is how this article was born) and making sure the sharpening room is running smoothly.

Current hours at Willey Knives are Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays, 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. They are at 14210 Sugar Hill Road in Greenwood. Stay sharp by calling 302-349-4070 to keep your favorite blades on the cutting edge.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at byesbek@capegazette.com.

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