A Cut Above
Portland’s newest culinary store brings the craft of Japanese whetstone sharpening to Maine
Walking into Strata feels like stumbling into an art gallery. Located in a row of repurposed shipping containers on Portland’s Washington Avenue called the Black Box, the store has a streamlined interior and crisp white walls that are lined with panels of live-edge wood displaying hundreds of knives, each with its own unique story. As I move along one wall, light catches on the varied silver surfaces, and the colors of the metals shift with me. Despite the “Please Do Not Touch” sign I want to reach out toward the shiny edges, but I comply. “People don’t like that sign,” jokes founding owner Evan Atwell.
At Strata, New England’s first Japanese whetstone sharpening and specialty cutlery store, Atwell and his team offer chef-quality knives not found elsewhere in the country and Japanese whetstone knife-sharpening services. The sharpening process is done by running a blade along a water-soaked stone, which is beneficial because it never generates enough heat to damage the structural integrity of the steel. This technique requires full mental engagement, too, ensuring an unmatched attention to detail every time. While Atwell does much of the sharpening himself, he is training two apprentices, but it’s a slow process. “Our services require a ton of training—thousands of hours,” Atwell says. And while that means that Atwell is doing double time for labor, he says, “I’d rather work until 3 a.m. than have someone who doesn’t quite know what they’re doing mess it up.” Atwell has put in his thousands of hours practicing his sharpening skills, but his only formal training was one two-hour class. He says he was so bad he stopped for about a year. Six years later, his hobby has grown into a full-time career.
Since its debut in February, Strata has seen a meteoric rise in demand. In just four months, the business reached its revenue goal for the year. Strata instantly became a resource for local and not-so-local chefs and foodies, some coming from as far as Rhode Island. Atwell wants to provide an immersive and educational experience for each customer. “We’re aiming for more personal empowerment in learning about your tools, how to take care of them, where they come from, and what they’re best used for,” he says. He hopes to start offering sharpening classes by this fall and knife-skills classes by winter, with talks of chef-taught cooking classes in a more distant future.