Food Matters: Knife Party
STAY SHARP, ASPEN!
When was the last time you sharpened your kitchen knives? If you’re like most home cooks, it’s probably been awhile … if ever! However, once you begin sharpening your knives regularly, like chefs do, and feel the difference, you’ll be hooked. Prepping ingredients becomes a silky smooth process — and a whole lot safer, since greater force is necessary when using a dull edge. Follow master sharpener Mike Kosec’s top tips:
• Select a sharpening steel by assessing the blade. For heavier, thicker German knives, use a regular steel or a mildly abrasive diamond steel (which requires fewer strokes). Ceramic sharpeners are suited for thinner, finer, lighter blades, such as Japanese knives or delicate paring knives.
• Focus on angle and maintaining that angle on both sides with even pressure. Use the width of your pinky set on the side of the blade as a guide (about 16 to 22 degrees).
• Keeping this angle steady, slide the blade from end to tip, either toward you, away from you, or downward by resting the steel vertically. “However is most comfortable to you is the way to do it,” Kosec says. Complete the same number of strokes per side.
• Finally, test sharpness by slicing a sheet of paper; any microscopic nicks on the blade will catch. A ripe tomato also works. “If it doesn’t feel sharp after that, it’s time to use a stone — oilstone or whetstone (soaked in water, which creates an abrasive slurry). 800-grit is a good place to start.”
WHEN I MEET Mike Kosec at his workshop, we’re both spinning our wheels. I’m cruising on a bicycle; he’s driving an 18-foot white truck. From the outside it looks like any other commercial delivery vehicle. Inside, though, is business HQ for Rolling Sharpening Stone, Kosec’s mobile knife-sharpening and cooking-tools sales company that serves professional chefs from Vail to Grand Junction and everywhere in between.
I’d spotted the truck back on Hopkins Avenue, so when I catch up near Paradise Corner, I’m out of breath. Kosec’s sidekick, son Tyler, appears startled as I glide alongside the passenger window, but quickly he rolls it down to shout that they’re headed to bb’s. “Meet you there,” I gasp, as they zoom toward parking.
Kosec visits Aspen every Thursday by way of Rifle, where he lives with his wife and bookeeper, Judy. You may have seen the Rolling Stone truck, emblazoned with a giant knife logo and old-time craftsman graphic labeled “Messermeister” (“Knife Master” in German), over the past 17 years; Kosec restocks restaurant kitchens with crucial supplies such as disposable gloves and garbage bags and gathers knives for sharpening back on the truck. (He also offers knife rentals, which are swapped out regularly.) Roughly 200 venues on the Western Slope — including about 20 clients in Aspen and six in Snowmass, currently — depend on Kosec, quite literally, to keep them sharp.
First-time visitors to the mobile showroom often gasp at just how many blades and accessories cover every interior surface. At the rear is the shop: a workbench coated in gray dust and scented of grinding metal is outfitted with three large, vertical discs: a whetstone, a sanding wheel and a cotton deburring wheel. On these Kosec hones knives, thanks to a built-in generator, fluorescent lights and air-conditioning. He dons chainmail gloves while he does this, wearing out two or three pairs a year.
The rest of the space is inventory. Oak cabinets and glass display cases line the walls. The ceiling is sheathed in pegboard, upon which dozens of gadget are fastened tight with elastic cord: scoops, spoons, spatulas, strainers, microplanes, peelers, pocket thermometers, tongs, whisks, mallets, mashers, cutting boards, sous-vide vacuum bags and even omelet pans in four sizes. Aprons hang in each corner; boxes of SealWrap are stacked three high on the narrow corridor floor.
Kosec’s bread and butter, of course, are knives: At least six brands available in up to 10 styles (paring, boning, butcher, etc.). Japanese knives are all the rage, Kosec says. In all, the truck holds some 500 items at wholesale prices — $12,000 or more of product. Anything Kosec doesn’t have on hand, including cookware and appliances, he’s able to order. His ChefWorks catalog of soft goods and shoes features an eye-boggling 57 pages of aprons alone.
“As I tell the chefs: I sell anything from salt-and-pepper shakers to walk-in coolers,” Kosec quips. “Not only do I sharpen knives, but I (sell) the whole gamut of equipment. Plus light maintenance and repairs of small equipment, like Robot-Coupe machines, 16-inch hand blenders, slicers.”
Earlier today, the Kosec guys knocked off Snowmass accounts, restocked Caribou Club (chef Miles Angelo is an original customer) and completed sharpening services for The Gant.
“We only have six stops left, it’s about 50 percent (of business now),” Kosec says, adding that he might have time to swing through Basalt, usually reserved for Fridays after Glenwood Springs. “This is the end of the quiet. Food & Wine, that’s when it starts blowing up.”
I trail the hulking, 6’6” Kosec upstairs to bb’s, where we’re greeted by chef Jeff Casagrande, a client of six years. Today he receives the standard bulk goods plus five vegetable peelers and a 3-inch pastry brush.
“He comes to you, sees what you need every couple of weeks,” says Casagrande, occasionally persuaded to peruse Kosec’s wares in person on the truck. “It’s a chef’s dream to go in there and see knives everywhere.”
Kosec understands the allure. He was a chef once. Formerly executive sous at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, Kosec was on a staff of 40 that turned out 6,000 plates for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“We called it the bunker — fluorescent lights and cement,” he says of the subterrranean kitchen. “I’d have to call my wife to know what the weather was like.”
Time to finish the rounds. Admittedly, it’s a bit slow at 1:30 p.m. on June 1: Wild Fig is still a construction zone, the lone worker at Grey Lady appears unauthorized to make purchases and everyone at Aspen Kitchen is preoccupied. We head to park in front of the dancing fountain — no taxi drivers grumble at Kosec today — then relocate to the back of the truck.
Tyler, 22, shoulders a stack of boxes and shuffles over to Jimmy’s Bodega; they’ve requested double as many bags and gloves than in winter since the restaurant is open for summer lunch. He refuses the handcart.
“I told him: You wait 10 years to see how your shoulders feel,” Kosec quips, shaking his head. “Fifteen years ago, when I was younger and things were less hectic, I could do it myself. He’s got fresher legs and better knees than I do. It’s nice having two people; I can talk to chefs about future needs, new products, egg on the crew to come to the truck.”
Tyler has been working alongside his father eight years, since age 14. “Now I sharpen knives,” he says. “If he goes out of town, he can trust me with the truck. And I carry the heavy stuff.” The best part? “I know the coolest chefs in the coolest towns!”
Bodega executive chef Mario Hernandez, sous chef Roberto, and a line cook, all dressed in chef coats, climb aboard the truck. It’s clear they’ve been here before — Hernandez has used Kosec’s services for a decade, since his Pacifica days — but still, their eyes are wide like saucers. They pick up mandoline slicers and fishbone tweezers, talking excitedly en español. Hernandez is on the hunt for a replacement lemon squeezer — it’s ceviche season, after all — and a long-handled spider strainer for deep-frying.
“I like to buy (peelers) at the beginning of every season,” Hernandez says. “It’s easy for me to order this stuff through Shamrock or Sysco, but we like to support local companies.”
At the same time, Hernandez takes pride in maintaining his own instruments, including a Japanese knife that proprietor Jimmy Yeager brought back from a trip to the country last fall. “We start our day by sharpening our knives every morning with a stone,” he says. “It’s important. We do a lot of brunoise, so we need our knives very sharp.”
Kosec sells Hernandez the peelers and tools, then shuts the door. It’s clear he enjoys these interactions, but he doesn’t envy the reality of chef life any more.
“The travel is great,” he says. “Being outside, driving around and seeing people. They were customers 17 years ago; now they’re customers and friends.”
Next time you see the Rolling Stone truck in Aspen, feel free to step inside. Though Kosec doesn’t advertise his services to the general public, he’ll sharpen knives for home cooks upon request. (Customers may also drop knives for service at Kitchen Collage in Willits. Home sharpeners, see Kosec’s tips in fact box.)
“It’s the wow factor,” Kosec says of his success. “People ask me, ‘I’ve been on the truck before, what do you have new?’ And I say: All the stuff you didn’t see before!”
Amanda Rae took one whiff of Mike Kosec’s mobile sharpening shop and was transported to her father’s Pierce Machine Company. firstname.lastname@example.org
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