Living on the Edge: D.C.’s District Cutlery
April 27, 2023 @ 2:47pm
Whatever your knife situation, D.C. has just the resource for you: District Cutlery.
Any good home chef knows the importance of a finely-tuned kitchen knife — the combination of quality steel, a fine edge and the appropriate size and shape for the job. But if you’re not a professional, it might be hard to know which knife to get or how to use it. Perhaps you got a Wüsthof set when you got married and it’s gathering dust. Or perhaps you still have those cheap IKEA knives from your first apartment and have to hack away at even the softest of veggies.
Whatever your situation, D.C. has just the resource for you: District Cutlery. Formerly DC Sharp, this Union Market shop is the brainchild of Derek Swanson and his brother Ryan.
“Our family didn’t have a culinary pedigree, or any background in knives,” says Ryan. “We just started sharpening for our friends as a hobby.”
This hobby turned to a profession in 2012, when Derek visited the newly-refreshed Union Market and found an opportunity to set up a table.
“It was just luck of the draw for us, at the right time and the right moment,” Ryan adds. “We came in and set up a table with just a set of whetstones — no machines, nothing.”
At the time it was just Derek, but that first weekend of sharpening was such a success that Derek called Ryan down from Beantown to help out. From there, the business grew, they expanded and started building relationships and learning the trade. The duo apprenticed under Master Bladesmith Murray Carter, akin to serving as a sous chef for José Andrés (which is ironic, as José Andrés has purchased knives from District Cutlery).
Finding a permanent space, the brothers now have an extensive collection of fine knives for sale, gleaming in illuminated glass cases, and a sharpening area behind the counter full of stones, belts for sharpening the wheels and liquids to help hone.
“You can’t have good knife skills if your knife is dull, or it’s a really crappy one,” Ryan says. “If your knife isn’t sharp, you’re more likely to cut yourself.”
While they can provide equipment for you to sharpen by hand at home, it might take a while.
“Sharpening is hard and it’s an art,” Ryan says. “If your knife is dull, it’ll take you 500 strokes to sharpen it.”
Prices for District Cutlery’s sharpening services are usually under $30 for a tune-up.They handle all sorts of knives, tools, scissors and garden implements, and can also do a complete reconstruction in case of major damage. If you’re looking to ditch the IKEA knives and upgrade, you’ll find this shop has a pretty wide selection.
“Our cases are open, so come on in and put a bunch in your hand,” Ryan offers. “Find the size you like, something that feels good. You want it to be comfortable.”
If you’re still not sure which one is right, Ryan and his team can make recommendations based on what you’re looking for.
“People are starting to understand they don’t need to buy a big block, but just get one or two workhorses.”
At the shop, you’ll find a panoply of high-quality Japanese knives that won’t break the bank, along with some ultra-high end American cutlery like those by their mentor, Murray Carter. If you want folding knives, they’ve got a whole case dedicated to that, too. They offer knives in both stainless steel and carbon steel.
“Nothing we sell is anything we won’t use ourselves,” Ryan says.
Don’t think that because you drop $200 or more on a knife you can act like your blade was forged by the gods, though. The team here can provide you with some handy hints to keep your purchase in good working order.
“Never try to cut something with a knife that you wouldn’t feel comfortable chewing on with your teeth,” advises Dylan, one of Ryan’s team members. “No frozen stuff, no bones, no crab.”
They do have a thing for that, however; for emphasis, Dylan produces a massive cleaver from under the counter.
“That’s what you want.”
In the end, it’s easy to overthink things or get taken in by at-home sharpening gimmicks or pricy name brand knives in catalogs. To avoid this, and maybe learn a thing or two, make it over to the northwest corner of Union Market and check out District Cutlery. They’ll help you choose a blade, keep it in tip-top shape and help you be a better chef.
District Cutlery: 1309 5th St. NE, DC; districtcutlery.com // @districtcutlery
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