Toward the beginning of the pandemic last year, in a link-following haze on Instagram, I came across Moshi Moshi Knives, a new professional sharpening company in Atlanta, owned by chef Michael Behn. In Behn and his business, I not only found the answer to my knife-sharpening woes, but much-needed comic relief in Behn, who is a total ham online.
One of the first things they teach you in culinary school is that a dull knife is dangerous. That adage stuck with me for years, as I diligently sharpened whichever knife I was using with my sharpener. But the knives were never as sharp as when I schlepped them to Cook’s Warehouse for the sharpening service provided by the bladesmith there, who services many local Atlanta restaurants.
Behn stars in and performs a hybrid of instruction and interpretive dance to everything from classical music to hip hop in the short videos he posts to stories on the Moshi Moshi Knives Instagram account. These videos are entertaining and a little voyeuristic due to the range of knives he showcases from clients, which include standard kitchen knives, rather unusual blades, super expensive knives, and even pocket knives.
But watching the videos, you also see the tremendous care Behn takes with each blade. His patience pays off, too. I find my knives stay sharper longer—even my battered school-issued chef’s knife from California Culinary Academy. The knife holds sentimental value for me. Behn says one of his favorite knives to sharpen was the curved blade Sikh men carry as part of their religious tenets, but he’s also done axes and machetes.
Growing up in Gwinnett and Forsyth counties, his path to owning a knife-sharpening business started at 19 years old (the cusp of his culinary career). He spent hours watching Japanese chefs use their knife skills to cut vegetables on YouTube. Behn says he quit college after just one semester and began working at a local Japanese restaurant, where they wouldn’t let him cook for six months.
“I was 16 when I got my first restaurant job as a busboy and dishwasher. I showed up to work in a bathing suit and flip-flops on my first day,” says Behn. “It took me a long time before I was the sort of employee that could be called ‘good.’”
After a few years at that restaurant, Behn moved on to other restaurant gigs in Athens, Georgia, and Cumberland Island, a barrier island off the Georgia coast. He says his time working on Cumberland Island was transformative and like ad-hoc culinary school, learning “how to put heat on food and cook it” and to be quieter in the kitchen.
But two years later, Behn moved on again to work for Kevin Gillespie and chef Joey Ward at Gunshow in Atlanta, and then as a sous chef at Gillespie’s Decatur restaurant Revival. In hindsight, Behn laments his performances at Gunshow and Revival, and subsequently for Ward at his new Poncey-Highland restaurant Southern Belle. He maintains his bosses were kind to him despite his youthful naivety.
“I was just a young man leading a herd of cats into chaotic services. Every Saturday, a bunch of unhappy people, myself included,” Behn says. “This was when Kevin got diagnosed with cancer. It was also a perfect storm, and I was way over my head.”
He calls that time his first big failure in life. Behn eventually bounced back. But, COVID caused him to reconsider his career path and his place in the restaurant industry. In between jobs, Behn had sharpened knives for a few people here and there to help supplement his income. He was living paycheck to paycheck then.
“My back hurts, and I’m a young man,” he says. “I want to marry my girlfriend of many years, but I can’t afford a wedding ring. I can’t afford this.”
Behn decided it was time to make knife sharpening his main gig, especially since his love for cooking came first from his love of knives.
It’s been nearly a year since founding Moshi Moshi Knives and, according to Behn, business is booming. People complete an online form to reserve times slots on the calendar with drop-off instructions. The knife-sharpening industry is traditionally priced per inch of a knife. Moshi Moshi Knives charges on average $2 per inch (Cook’s Warehouse charges a flat fee by blade type). Behn uses whetstones to sharpen knives, doing it all by hand. Knives are ready for pickup in three to five days and are returned in mint condition, wrapped in Japanese newsprint, with anime-branded stickers warning the blades are sharp and to use caution.
Behn is now taking what he’s learned and training other cooks to sharpen knives, hoping to help them start their own sharpening companies and make a livable income each week.
“No cooks are happy in their job, unfortunately, and I don’t blame them. They work a lot. They don’t get paid much,” Behn tells me of the impetus behind the knife-sharpening training he offers now through Moshi Moshi Knives.
Behn sees this training as paying it forward, providing other cooks like him an opportunity to learn a new skill and maybe go into business for themselves, while hopefully maintaining a sustainable and more balanced lifestyle.
“Your back isn’t breaking, and you’re eating dinner with your family every night,” he says.
Jennifer Zyman is a restaurant critic, food writer, and noodle enthusiast born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and raised in Atlanta where she lives with her family. She is a graduate of Emory University and California Culinary Academy. Her work has appeared in Atlanta magazine, Atlanta Intown Paper, Creative Loafing, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, Bon Appetit, Serious Eats, Eater Atlanta, Thrillist, the Kitchn, and via her website the Blissful Glutton.