A GUY WITH AN EDGE
Posted January 11, 2018 8:01 p.m. EST
A forensic pathologist with an impressive collection of cookbooks, Dr. Stephen Pustilnik has spent much of his life wielding a knife.
His Houston kitchen is crowded with a formidable collection of the world's sharpest knives. Long, sleek Japanese blades mingle with thick, sturdy German ones. Among his favorites is a cobalt-handled knife with a slight curve - an amateur's mistake. It was the first one he made himself as he learned the craft of knife making in 2012.
Since then, he has built a business that combines his life's two passions: good cooking and precise autopsies.
He is now working his way through a year-and-a-half-long waiting list of chefs, home cooks and pathologists willing to spend hundreds of dollars on knives that hold an edge and make clean work of anything from gnarly vegetables to sinewy flesh.
He started the business, called Houston Edge Works, in 2013 with the promise of sharp blades made from extra-hard steel alloys. He customizes lustrous handles to fit the buyer's hand.
The fascination began when he was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, determined to improve on the dishes his mother had prepared during his childhood. He taught himself to cook with bargain-priced knives until he was able to afford the pricier Japanese ones kept locked behind glass at cookware shops.
"To be a better cook, you need a better knife," he said.
As he cooked his way through medical school at Washington University in St. Louis, he realized that his success in both the kitchen and the lab depended on knife quality. His stiff steel chef knives severed animal flesh with ease, but the dull, flexible blades used in the morgue slipped against human organs and made dissections difficult.
He started his pathology career in Florida before moving to Alabama and finally Texas, all the while seeking a sharp, sturdy knife that would make clean cuts in body parts photographed for presentation in court. For years, he made do with a sanitary food service knife typically used to carve wheels of hard cheese.
But the cheap knife needed constant sharpening, eventually frustrating him to the point of giving up the search and making his own. He worked with a craftsman to design a 20-inch chalef, a type of knife traditionally used for Kosher slaughter, out of premium steel.
"It is the perfect knife for autopsy," he said.
Though he tends to use a scalpel for eviscerations, the custom knife became his go-to tool. The process of making it enthralled him, so he began apprenticing with a local knife maker who allowed him to use his equipment in exchange for materials.
Now, he most often makes chefs' knives from sheets of some of the toughest steel alloys, strengthened with tungston, vanadium or chromium and heat-treated by a metallurgist. He finishes the blades in a shower of sparks and pixie-like steel dust that accumulates beneath the belt grinder on his garage workbench.
The two-month process wraps up with the careful construction of a customized knife handle, designed and crafted in a backroom workshop lined with stacks of rare materials. Centuries-old wood preserved in the acidic depths of Ukrainian bogs. Mammoth teeth. Abalone.
Pustilnik solicited some of Houston's best-known chefs when he started the business, hoping that a shared passion and word-of-mouth advertising would grow his customer base. He one day appeared without warning at the restaurant bar of Chris Shepherd's Underbelly.
Shepherd emerged from the kitchen and was taken aback by the fast-talking stranger unfurling a roll of knives.
"It was just a whirlwind when he walked in," he said.
Shepherd, a self-described knife freak, turned out to be an easy sell. Pustilnik returned weeks later with a large chef's knife fashioned with Texans colors.
But when Shepherd picked it up, something didn't feel right. Pustilnik zeroed in on his grip, watching how his wrist moved across a cutting board.
He whisked the knife back to his shop and returned later with a new one, a 12-incher with a handle specially designed for Shepherd's large hand.
"It's like a freakin' dream now, so ergonomic and beautiful," Shepherd said. "You don't get that every day."
Pustilnik, after spending years examining human bodies, speaks easily of the particular mechanics of the hands. He measures his customers' palms and observes where the metacarpophalangeal joints - the hinges at the knuckles - rest on a knife handle.
The goal, he said, is for the chef to focus solely on the food, not the way the knife feels.
"When the hand and the blade come together in an ergonomic way, it's seamless," he said. "It's just the chef executing his vision."
The blades he makes now far outshine the blue-handled one that started the business. He made knives for well-known chefs including Michael Voltaggio, Jet Tila, Scott Conant as well as medical professionals in private practice and skilled home cooks with money to spend on a lifelong tool.
He agonizes over each one until he's forced to part with it, a bittersweet ending to a weekslong affair.
"I'm just staring at it and thinking, 'I love this knife,'" he said. "Then I call the customer and tell them it's ready."