New culinary knife shop is a perfect fit for Portland’s booming food scene
Evan Atwell is intimately familiar with the allure of a French knife.
The Sabatier knives he carries at Strata, his new culinary knife shop on Washington Avenue, have black handles and are made with vintage 1940s carbon steel. French master smiths, Atwell explained, hid the steel during World War II and then brought it out again in the 1950s and 1960s to make these user-friendly knives, which are more slender than German brands. (Who knew that kitchen knives could have a back story?)
Strata, which opened Feb. 1, is located in one of the shipping containers that entrepreneurs are renting for retail space on Portland’s East End, a busy neighborhood of restaurants and bars. Knife shopping there is an education and an experience unlike anything you’ll get at Williams-Sonoma or other big stores that sell knives by the block. Atwell trades in artisanal Japanese and French knives, but also knives crafted here in Maine – beautiful handmade pieces that look as if they belong in a museum. “I try to stay away from machine-built stuff as much as possible,” he said.
Atwell, 29, can school anyone on what knives they need to have in their kitchen, from the greenest home cook to the most demanding head chef. And he can sharpen them for you, using his senses of touch, sight and hearing to get the sharpness of the blade or the set of the bevel just right.
“I didn’t wake up and naturally be able to do this,” he said. “It’s been several thousand hours of practice and mistakes and asking questions. And watching You Tube videos.”
Local chefs are already discovering this cutlery playground.
“I bought a bunch of stuff. I bought too much,” Fred Eliot, head chef at Scales restaurant in Portland, recalled with a chuckle. Not surprisingly, the chef, who grew up in Paris, chose the French knives. “I like the carbon steel type,” Eliot said. “They stay sharper longer. They’re easier to sharpen.”
Eliot called Strata “a great, welcome addition to the Portland food scene.”
While Atwell sharpens knives (he charges by the inch), does repairs or works on custom finishes, his wife, Becky Wurwarg, waits on customers. He says from the get-go working with knives was for him “almost like an instinctual draw.” He likes their combination of function and craft.
“This is kind of like functional art, in a sense,” he said. “Not only is it attractive, it can be made to do work.”
His line of work allows him to be close to the food industry without being in it himself.
“I like food, and I like the people who work in food, but I don’t always like working in food,” Atwell said. “The hours are long, the pay can be variable. Not a lot of people understand how tough it is.”
Strata offers Maine knives for sale, including the colorful, handmade ones from Grimm Knife Co. in South Berwick.
Atwell and Wurwarg have lived in Portland for two years. They moved here from San Francisco, where they both worked in the food industry, Atwell managing a food market and Wurwag working at Dandelion Chocolate, a bean to bar
Atwell worked around the corner from Bernal Cutlery, the city’s “cult knife shop” (according to Vogue) where shopping for a knife is (according to the San Francisco Gate) “a highly sensual experience.” He started hanging out there before and after work, and during lunch breaks, pestering” the staff and absorbing whatever he could.
When living in San Francisco grew too expensive, and Atwell wanted to find a place to set up his own shop, “we did research and Portland kept coming up,” he said. It was, like San Francisco, a progressive city on the water, with a good food scene and lots of access to nature. “We noticed that there wasn’t a place like (Strata) in all of New England,” Atwell said. “We lived in Boston for a second, but we really like the energy here.”
He spent two years in Maine as a butcher at Rosemont Market & Bakery. Then he took the leap and opened Strata.
Collections of knives hang on either side of the long, narrow shipping container. Japanese knives are known for their quality and craftsmanship, Atwell said. “Japanese steels tend to be harder, which means they can take a sharper edge and hold that edge for longer,” Atwell explained. “That allows them to be thinner and lighter most of the time.”
Atwell and his wife prefer to use Japanese knives in their own kitchen, primarily Gyuto and Nakiri. “We’re always experimenting at home and getting excited about something,” Wurwarg said.
A culinary hub
Among the Maine-made knives the shop sells are ones made by Chris Blackburn of Full Circle Craftworks in New Gloucester. Blackburn’s knives are made from mid-century high carbon steel repurposed from lumber saws. Stunning, colorful knives handmade by Jason Burleigh and Glenn DiLando of Grimm Knife Co. in South Berwick are also for sale at Strata. Both Burleigh and DiLando are former kitchen workers – Burleigh was the chef at Anju Noodle Bar in Kittery – who started making knives three years ago and went professional about a year ago.
Burleigh said they aim for a classic look to their knives, but also want them to be a little different, more colorful than typical, and to “make more of a statement.”
The knife handles are made with eucalyptus burl and colorful polyester resins, and sometimes they embed objects in the handles. DiLando has crafted handles that incorporate bat skulls, snake skulls, vintage bakelite dice, crystals, gems, shark’s teeth, and even human teeth.
Strata is the first Maine store that has carried Grimm Knives.
“We definitely want to give Maine and New England makers, especially in the culinary world, a spotlight,” Atwell said. “There’s active bushcraft makers (makers of outdoor knives) in New England, but less so for culinary makers, so we’re doing our best to be a hub for them, everything from knives themselves to the accessories – even magnetic knife strips that we’ll have in a couple of weeks.”
Eliot said he tells the cooks on his staff never to spend more than $200 on a knife. He’s speaking from experience. As a young cook in New York City, Eliot once bought a $350 knife. “That was like my whole paycheck, and I had no idea how to sharpen it,” he said. “I completely messed it up. I still have it, but it’s basically a fileting knife because I wore it down so much, not knowing what I was doing back then, it was kind of like money wasted.”
Eliot sees young cooks in Portland making the same mistake – buying $300 knives that they don’t know how to sharpen. He’s hoping to convince Atwell to come to his restaurant to give a sharpening demonstration.
Atwell says there’s “no magic time frame” for sharpening a knife because so many variables are involved, from frequency of use to the food that’s being cut.
“The rule of thumb is it’s probably time to get it sharpened when it stops performing the way that you want it to, and that’s going to mean different things for different people,” Atwell said. “There are chefs who sharpen up their knives every single shift, every day, and there are people who like to see how long they can go, which I don’t suggest.”
Atwell hopes to branch out eventually to outdoor knives, pocket knives and maybe even straight razors. He also wants to sell whet stones and offer knife sharpening classes.
“I plan to stay here until I outgrow this space,” he said. “We’re excited to add to the already stellar food scene in a fundamental way, through the tools that you use to feed you and your family, or customers at a restaurant.”