Keeping knives sharp for Britain’s chefs

By Nicholas Lander

A selection of knives

The two young men I saw walking out of Princi, Alan Yau’s chic Italian café on Wardour Street in London’s Soho, looked very different from the rest of the customers. Broad-shouldered, they carried two large trays of knives and wore blue T-shirts embossed with the words www.nellacut.com.

A few days later I saw a van bearing the same web address outside St Moritz, a long-established Swiss restaurant on the same street. This time a tray of sharpened knives was being delivered to the restaurant – in return for a tray of blunt ones.

To find out more about what was going on behind the scenes, I called Emilio Nella, who runs Nella Cutlery with his brother Mark, and discovered his unsung but vital role in the operations of many British chefs. Sharp knives are undoubtedly one of the main differences between the professional kitchen and the amateur.

Nella invited me to see his sharpeners in action. Based in the south-east London suburb of Hither Green, the company has a stock of half a million knives, and supplies the sharpened implements to about 21,000 restaurants in the UK.

Nella, 45, is the great-grandson of the company founder, who in 1901 left his village of Carisolo above Lake Garda and came to England, where he worked as a travelling knife-sharpener in the villages around south-east London. As he escorted me through the area where the next day’s knives were being sorted for delivery, Nella pointed to a dark wooden block. “That is the sharpening block [my great-grandfather] brought over and travelled with. It weighs over 300kg and was attached to a cartwheel, which he used to pedal with a pot of water on a stick to ensure the blades didn’t burn.”

In 1965, Nella’s father realised that a shortage of skilled sharpeners meant that the knives would have to come to him rather than vice versa. “Today,” Nella explained, “we’re predominantly in the knife rental business. We own the knives and weekly, fortnightly, or once a month, we deliver the same number of sharp, colour-coded knives to our customers, take back the blunt ones and charge between £1.50 and £2 per knife for the service. There is also a premium service for about 100 of the top London hotels where we collect their knives at 3.30pm on a Thursday and return them, sharpened, early the following morning.”

The heart of the business is a large, noisy room in which 20 young men, all Brazilian (there is a large local community) and almost all with their baseball caps on back to front, stand in front of circular grindstones inserting knives until they are fully honed. Then each knife is hygienically washed and packaged. The atmosphere is pungent with the smell of filings, mixed with oil and water from the tanks below ground. The tanks allow the sharpening systems to work non-stop. Several of the aluminium boxes store 2ft-long blades, used for slicing meat in doner kebab restaurants. Out of context, they look particularly lethal.

Although Nella was proud to show me round, he would not be drawn on two aspects of his highly competitive business: the source of his knives and where and by whom the electric grindstones are manufactured to his specification. “The key to my business is buying the best possible knives at the right price,” he explained.

It makes sense for restaurant businesses to keep their knives sharp, as blunt knives are far more likely to slip while cutting through food. But there is also a compelling business case for using regularly sharpened knives. “We proved to management at Toby Carveries that if they used one of our carving knives on a joint. they could get an extra 20 portions out of it. We now supply all of their 120 restaurants around the UK and I reckon we save them over £100,000 a year.”

Nella is quick to acknowledge his own debt to his family home in Carisolo. Following his great-grandfather’s example, other members of the family emigrated and went to start knife-sharpening businesses in Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Montreal. There is now a statue of a knife-sharpener on the outskirts of picturesque Pinzolo, a neighbouring Italian town, as a tribute to all the knife-sharpeners it has generated.

nicholas.lander@ft.com 
More columns at www.ft.com/lander