In the words of Doyle Hanson, "If you're used to using a sharp knife, you know how to let the knife do the work." Hanson is a trained commercial diver and a martial arts enthusiast who hopes to open a karate school in Lafitte someday. But when a man can put an edge on your serrated knife like Doyle Hanson can, it's impossible to think of him as anything but the Knife Guy.
The man who once paid Hanson to sharpen his machete might disagree. So might the hairdressers whose shears he services, and the woman whose Japanese silk-screening tools occasionally need his attention. But it was a knife that got him into this business and knives that most of his customers haul to his station at the Crescent City Farmers Market.
Hanson learned how to sharpen, and make, knives while growing up on the Iowa farm where his father forbade him to work. "We had seen too many limbs getting ripped off in combines," he says. Hansen spent his leisure time tooling with a sharpening stone in the barn and the steel scraps he found around the farm. While he has a youthful energy and the full-bodied stance of a 13-year karate student, Hansen already has lived through his nine lives -- in restaurants, in offshore galleys, welding under water and scarring up his hands and forearms sharpening blades for a living. He chuckles to recall his father's vain attempt at keeping him out of danger.
Still a hobby in 1985, Hansen's rare talent for sharpening was discovered by a cook at Maison de Ville who, in a pinch, borrowed the knife Hanson used to cut lemons and limes at his bartending post. Word spread, and Hanson soon began moonlighting with a sharpening stone and a jewelers loup (a tiny magnifying glass).
Today Hanson's operation is fully mobile, with everything he might need packed into a Chevy van, including diamond stones for sharpening ceramic knives and the leather straps he uses to finish every blade. Besides his Market duty, Hansen's sharpening circuit -- from Morgan City to Mobile, and from Baton Rouge to Golden Meadow -- is a sort-of culinary who's who of the Gulf South. His New Orleans clients include Bella Luna, Arnaud's, Bravo, Bacco, Tony Moran's and Broussard's. At Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, Hanson crafts paring knives out of retired steak knives for the kitchen crew, and sometimes sharpens Ruth Fertel's personal steak-knife collection. He says that Andrea Apuzzo, chef-owner of Andrea's, "is a real nice guy, but when I'm done sharpening, boy is he serious about it." He refuses to return to restaurants where the kitchen staff doesn't treat his skill with respect.
Over coffee one morning, Hanson demonstrates his technique for testing a knife's sharpness by grazing a blade over the tips of his arm hair. If the tips fall off, the knife is sharp. Many sharpeners use a paper test, but since plant fibers are so tough, he says, "I don't ever cut wood products with anything I've sharpened." In his experience, most knives can wait months between sharpenings, providing the blades are well cared for. Hansen recommends swiping your knives over a sharpening steel regularly, holding them at slightly less than a 30-degree angle; use light pressure and just three or four strokes each time.
He keeps abreast of current knife trends and new sharpening techniques by reading Blade magazine and Sharpener's Report, a monthly newsletter. He also attends an annual sharpeners seminar in Knox City, Mo., where once he was one of four attendees who could sharpen a serrated knife. "It's a hand-eye coordination thing. Maybe I was just born lucky," he says in an uncharacteristic moment of humility.
The Knife Guy exudes confidence, which works to the favor of a man who regularly performs "material removal" (aka sharpening) on $80-to-$200 kitchen knives and $100-to-$500 shears. Why should you trust him? "I can heliarc weld, I can MIG weld, I can TIG weld ... I can braise or solder brass ... I sure as heck can sharpen your knife," he guarantees.
When you think about it, everyone could benefit from a Knife Guy. On Market days, Hanson runs across garden shears, cuticle clippers and household scissors. He gets business from florists, tailors and furniture upholsterers. At restaurants, he wrangles meat slicers and sharpens the small blades on wine openers; seafood wholesalers hire him to do fillet knives. While he won't sharpen tools for anyone he senses might have dangerous intentions ("I like to think I have some ethics," he says), people have brought him ninja knives, cavalry sabers and samurai swords.
Just an hour before closing time during the Market on Tuesday, the sidewalk near his set-up looks like a day care for the knife bags and well-worn gear that wait in line. Peering through his safety goggles, he muses, "I didn't even know what all was out there until I started doing this."
You can find Doyle Hanson and his sharpening stone at the Crescent City Farmers Market Uptown location from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesdays, and at the downtown location from 8 a.m. to noon every second and fourth Saturday of the month.
- Donn Young
- Slice of life: Knife sharpener Doyle Hanson says he refuses to return to restaurants where the kitchen staff doesn't treat his skill with respect.