Welcome to the January 2023 edition of My Kitchen, Their Table, an interview series with the chefs and culinary professionals who work hard to satisfy our small city’s big appetite. This month we’re featuring an interview with Evan Atwell from Strata. Photos and videos will continue to expand on the story on instagram, so stay tuned.
What do a silky slice of raw tuna, a paper-thin sliver of scallion, and a precisely segmented orange all have in common? They were each cut using the right knife with a razor-sharp edge. Proper technique and high-quality ingredients are important in cooking, but so are the tools we use — and no other tool is more essential than a knife.
In this edition of My Kitchen Their Table, we talk to Evan Atwell, the man behind Portland’s sharpening service and cutlery shop, Strata. His careful curation and skillful servicing of the world’s best knives have made Strata a destination shop for professionals and home cooks alike.
Atwell and his wife moved to Portland in 2017. His prior experience as the assistant store manager at Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco made him a perfect fit for Rosemont Market & Bakery. In the butchery department, he honed his skills, experimented with knife styles, and beta-tested his concept for Strata. All it took was a small sign on the butcher counter that read, “drop-off knife sharpening” for him to build a following.
With enough demand to convince him to take the next step, Atwell opened a storefront in February 2019 at the Black Boxes on Washington Avenue. He started with roughly sixty knives and a few other accessories. Soon, the 225-square-foot shipping container displayed cutlery from floor to ceiling. When a larger retail space in the Nissen Bakery Building became available, Atwell seized the opportunity to grow and expand his collection. Strata reopened in June 2021 and now sources over 1000 knives and an assortment of kitchen goods, from cookbooks to cookware.
To truly appreciate the beauty of these knives, one must understand the work involved in making and sourcing them. It took Atwell years to penetrate the exclusive knife industry, especially in Japan. “It goes against our Western capitalistic mindset, but many traditional makers are not interested in finding more business. They are only interested in making X number of knives per day as best they can,” he explains. As for the making, each knife has a story that Atwell is more than happy to share.
Strata offers inventory online for nationwide and international shipping, and you can mail your knives for sharpening. In March, Atwell will offer knife skills and whetstone sharpening classes. With over 500 people on the waitlist, he has surely found a niche in the market.
Continue reading to learn why Atwell prefers carbon steel knives, what a Wa handle is, and the places he considers Portland’s “towny favorites.”
AR: What led you to specialize in curating and servicing knives?
EA: A shop much like Strata was around the corner from where I worked in San Francisco called Bernal Cutlery. I thought it was the coolest thing ever, so I started studying and practicing sharpening. I had no idea knives and related utensils could be so rich in history and tradition. The science behind it is also very intriguing. These are not everyday knives. They come from people that have dedicated their lives to this functional art.
AR: How do you vet which knives make it into your shop?
EA: Determining who gets a spot involves a lot of studying, learning the styles and production techniques of the seemingly innumerable players in the industry, and getting your hands on the knives to know how they perform. Although we want a diverse catalog, we do not work with just any brand. We only want the best and the most promising upstarts working under established masters. It takes time to learn who is good and less good, and try to balance your inventory, so you don’t have too much of the same thing.
AR: What is your favorite type of knife?
EA: I prefer thin, hand-forged Japanese carbon steel knives with convex grinds and Wa handles. Japanese knives are largely defined as having more performance than Western knives; they are usually made with superior steels of high hardness and ground thin, allowing them to be lighter and sharper with longer edge retention. However, the thinner and harder the blade, the more brittle it becomes. When using Japanese knives, you want to avoid coming in contact with hard products like bones, crustaceans, frozen foods, fruit pits, etc. But if you keep them in their lane, they are a ride, unlike any other knife option.
AR: What is a convex grind and Wa handle?
EA: The grind is the shape and thickness of the blade. A convex grind is slightly outwardly curved, which helps push food away from the blade so it doesn’t stick to the blade as much. Convex grinds generally have a bit more edge retention and toughness since there is slightly more material behind the edge, so they are not as delicate. I prefer traditional Wa handles because they are removable. This allows you to get a new or custom handle that best fits your hand. It also allows for greater serviceability because you can work on the knife from any direction.
AR: Do you have a favorite maker?
EA: My favorite smith is probably Yoshikazu Tanaka-san from Sakai, Osaka. Tanaka-san is around 75 years old and has been forging blades by hand and eye for over half a century. The most important part about a good knife is something you cannot see, and that is the quality of the metallurgical structure of the blade. You can only experience it in use or servicing. Tanaka-san has machine-tight tolerances on his blades; he’s simply that good.
AR: Why is the structure of a knife so important?
EA: The structure is established during a multi-step process called the heat treat, whereby the smith cooks the steel by heating it and cooling it down. By manipulating the structure of the steel, the smith can give the blade various properties. Since the blade is composed entirely of this grain structure, it determines just about every physical property of the blade for its entire lifespan. So, when you’re paying big bucks for a knife like those by Tanaka-san, not only are you getting better fit and finish, materials, and appreciation value, you’re having a 3-star Michelin chef cook the steel in your blade.
AR: What is the shopping experience like at Strata?
EA: We sell to the greenest home cook up to Michelin-star chefs. We only sell single knives, not sets, because we suggest you invest as much as possible into each one. We cater our sales to your skillset. When you come in, it’s like fitting you for a suit or a dress. We ask you questions and then hand you knives to hold or “try on.” Once you buy your first good knife, it can easily become a hobby.
AR: Can you tell us about one of your favorite customer experiences?
EA: I had a woman in her eighties that bought a knife for her grandson, who then raved about it. So, she got one for herself. A few days later, she came back and said after living for 80 some-odd years, this knife changed her life. It changed her perspective on food and cooking. She then brought in her mother’s knife, which must have been over one hundred years old, and we restored it for her.
AR: What are some of your go-to dishes in Portland?
EA: Gosh, difficult question. Depends on my mood and the time of day. Maiz makes delicious and big-portioned Columbian street food. They have epic arepas with some of the best corn wraps and pockets in Maine.
AR: What are some of your other go-to dishes?
EA: Burgers at Black Cow. Nothing beats a greasy classic burger and fries at midnight after a long day at work. And the All Day Sandwich at LB Kitchen. It’s a BLT on steroids made with fresh, healthy ingredients.
AR: What particularly memorable meal have you had in Portland?
EA: One of the best dishes I’ve had in town was not at a restaurant. It was pizza from Quanto Basta. Whenever Betsy English does a pop-up, I try to make it. She’s got this adorable little car that she outfitted with two pizza ovens. I think it was a mailman’s car that her family brought over from England. I have never had pizza so deliciously chewy, perfectly seasoned, and with such harmonious toppings. I look forward to seeing her grow into something I hopefully don’t have to chase around town.
AR: What about outside of Portland?
EA: The corned beef hash at Palace Diner. Nothing else in this world would make me drive twenty-five plus minutes and wait for a seat while trying to baby a world-ending hangover than the magic that is their oleaginous deliciousness.
AR: Let’s end with something sweet. What do you recommend?
EA: The cream puffs at Onggi. Amy Ng is one of the best bakers I’ve ever come across, but she’s way too humble about it. She uses fresh ingredients with creative flavors, like local strawberries with black vinegar. Also, anything from Dear Dairy. Padien is an ice cream wizard, both with unique flavors and incredible texture. It’s unlike any other ice cream I’ve ever had. It’s almost chewy. The first one I tried was yuzu. The flavor is very prominent but not over the top. It’s perfectly done.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Previous editions of My Kitchen Their Table have featured Courtney Loreg, Chad Conley Atsuko Fujimoto, Matt Ginn, Jordan Rubin, Cara Stadler, Thomas Takashi Cooke, Ilma Lopez, Bowman Brown, Brian Catapang, Kelly Nelson, Lee Farrington & Bryna Gootkind, Jake and Raquel Stevens, Tina Cromwell, and Nathaniel Meiklejohn.