Galen Garretson's early track record with knives wasn't great.
At age 5, the future chef fell while holding his open pocket knife and gashed the side of his head. (The scab's still there.) The next year, he cut one of his fingerprints clean off.
But his parents kept buying him knives and Garretson, who started working in restaurants at 16, eventually got the hang of it. In the kitchen of the vaunted Quince in San Francisco, his last kitchen job, "everyone had these really nice Japanese knives, but my Wusthof was always sharper than everybody else's."
He noticed something else. "They were talking about having to buy new knives every six months, and I was like, ‘There’s gotta be more to it than that.’ ”
That “more” is Town Cutler, Garretson's six-year-old San Francisco knife shop, which soon will have a sister location in the West Loop. He aims to open at 1116 West Madison Street the week after Labor Day.
The 1,250-square-foot shop will sell the stuff of chefs' and knife nerds' dreams: custom-made blades with luxurious handles carved of California buckeye burl and African snakewood, hard-to-find Japanese knives, handmade leather scabbards and canvas knife wraps, and sharpening stones. Same-day sharpening is $1 an inch.
The store is less than a mile from Northwestern Cutlery on Lake Street, long a resource for restaurant industry folks and culinary students. But Garretson sees the two as complementary. "They have more small wares for the kitchen, where we're more knife-focused," he says.
Town Cutler will be the only place to find chef knives made by master bladesmith Aaron Wilburn. Starting at $2,000, they’re the priciest items. Most chef knives will average $250 to $350; on the low end, you might score a $130 blade.
Town Cutler's own line of carbon and stainless steel knives, made in its Oakland warehouse, borrows from both the Japanese and European styles, sharpening at a lower angle—and staying sharper—than others.
"It's got the thinness of Japanese knives, the durability of European knives, and the hardness of Japanese steel," Garretson says.
A custom-made chef’s knife—you choose the size, weight, and handle material—will start at $340 and take about three weeks to make and ship.
Educating customers on why any knife costs $340, and how to care for it, is part of Town Cutler’s mission, hence sharpening classes and the shop's interactive focal point: a brick wall lined with two long magnetic strips that will hold roughly 500 knives.
Pluck a knife from the wall—well, ask first!—and they'll raise the protective plastic shield fronting the display so you can handle it at a center work table.
Garretson, 32, has had his eye on opening in Chicago for three years. It's the home of Horween Leather, the 112-year-old tannery whose scraps he uses in his knife rolls. His girlfriend, Heather Smith, grew up and has family here. Beyond that, says Garretson, it feels right.
"It's a city I've always loved. It's big in the food industry. And there's really only one knife store, so I've seen a massive gap," he says.
Three Unique Knives You Can Find at Town Cutler
Garretson doesn’t have just one favorite knife. Here are three more interesting ones Town Cutler sells.
Town Cutler Hankotsu boning knife ($280)
"It's a Japanese blade with American influences. It's one of my favorites for butchery."
Takeda Sasanoha Gyuto chef knife ($380)
Long and narrow, good for precision cutting. "It's like a chef-slicer combo."
Aaron Wilburn Feather Damascus chef knife ($2,400)
Forged from hundreds—yes, hundreds—of layers of two types of steel, "like making puff pastry."