Atlantans is a first-person account of the familiar strangers who make the city tick. This month’s is Michael Behn, owner of Moshi Moshi Knife Sharpening, as told to Thomas Wheatley.
We’ve been fascinated with sharpened edges since the days of cavemen. They used flint and obsidian to remove meat from animals. We have this deep connection to sharpened edges that we don’t think about.
My dad was in the Air Force, and he met my mom, who is Filipina, in the Philippines. I was born in Key West, and we moved to metro Atlanta when I was five. Until August of last year, I thought I would cook in restaurant kitchens forever. I’d worked at restaurants since I was 17, at Gunshow, Revival, Georgia Boy and Southern Belle. The job of a cook is tough. They say you’re doing this for your passion, as opposed to a paycheck. After 10 years and some stressful experiences at some restaurants—I was managing 15 people at the age of 24 (I’m 28 now)—I realized, Maybe I need to change my life.
In between kitchen jobs, I would always fantasize about sharpening knives [full time] while looking for my next gig. Back when I was 21, I sharpened knives between jobs and I made decent money doing it. This past August, I went for it. I thought I would spend two months trying hard, getting disappointed, and then going back to kitchens. But the reception has been overwhelming. I started posting videos cutting pages from magazines and hair, and things caught on.
Then, I was just a guy who could sharpen a knife. Now, I’m a guy who can turn a dull knife into a crazy sharp instrument. Intensive projects on Japanese and German knives can take about an hour. But a standard Wüsthof chef knife takes roughly 10 minutes. A chef has come over, left his knives, grabbed a coffee down the street, and I had them ready when he came back.
Everything is done the traditional Japanese way, with traditional whetstones. No machines. As business picked up, I bought nicer whetstones and tried harder. I now have more than 350 clients. Sixty percent of them are home cooks; the rest are professional cooks. People send me messages on Instagram. If pricing and availability line up, they drop off the knives at my house in East Lake. I’ll assess them and send the final price. When they give me the green light, I’ll get started.
I learned how to sharpen knives from books, videos, and trial and error. If I had a really nice Japanese knife, I might start at a higher grit and be a little bit more patient. But if it’s your everyday, stainless-steel knife, I just hit it hard. I have a diamond lapping plate that cuts through metal fast and sets a nice bevel. I use stones ranging from 120 grit to 12,000. It makes sharpening 50 knives in one day a lot easier.
The most important thing about knife sharpening is getting it sharp and keeping it sharp. Spend that one to two minutes on maintenance, and you’ll have a hair-popping sharp knife that will last much longer. Knives are as delicate as they are strong. They can be a serious joy to use or a pain in the ass. If you remember to touch your knife on that leather strap before you start, it’ll last longer and be better to use. Pretty much any knife, regardless of cost, can be brought back to life.
I identify as a craftsman. I have reached out to well-respected people in the knife-sharpening world to develop a master-apprentice relationship. I’ve read all the books. I’ve watched all the videos. But there’s always room for improvement. I’ll never make a perfect French omelet. I’ve literally been surviving the past 12 years of my life. This craft has given me the opportunity to take a day off. I read a book that wasn’t a cookbook for the first time in 10 years. I exercised. I’ve given myself the opportunity to thrive.
I was very hard on myself the last 10 years, and I’m starting to be kinder and be more of a friend to myself. Everybody who brings knives to me—home chefs, professional cooks—they have a very self-deprecating tone. I tried sharpening it, but I need you to fix it. You gave your best on something with very little information out there on how to do it yourself. The fact that you tried is special to me. You deserve a nice, sharp knife. You deserve a cooking experience that isn’t manual labor, that’s culinary. This knife, this tool in your hand—it should be a joy to use.
This article appears in our June 2021 issue.