Mick Ellis is one of those guys who can do just about anything with his hands and some tools, and if he can't, he'll learn.
For most of his career he was a welder at the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station, near his home in Blair, Neb. He retired in 2007 as a maintenance supervisor, but always preferred the actual doing over the theoretical supervising. He has owned a landscaping business. Has certificates in plumbing and heating and air conditioning. From time to time, he replaces a furnace. Fixes cars.
“This is a guy,” said Pam Ellis, Mick's wife of 32 years, “who laid a wood floor a couple of days after he had arthroscopic knee surgery.”
He's a type-A personality, she said. Can't sit still.
“I fly around like a fart in a frying pan,” Mick Ellis said.
So here he was four years ago, retired at the youthful age of 55 and somewhat miserable. He'd spent 34 good years with the Omaha Public Power District. Things he never thought about — the accountability of having a job and the schedule it mandated — now consumed him. For years he had gone to bed at 9 p.m. Now he was up until 2 or 3 a.m., watching movies, and waking the next day to “The View.”
Life was dull.
It was his brother who spotted the Rolling Sharpening Stone truck parked with the “for sale” sign who gave him the idea that the next phase of his life might be as an invisible but important cog in the operations of restaurants throughout Omaha.
Today Ellis operates his full-time mobile knife-sharpening business from a truck that's part Williams-Sonoma, part high-school shop class.
At one end of the 18-foot trailer is a mini display featuring some of the finest kitchen cutlery around. At the other end, anchored into the trailer's built-in countertops and industrial rubber flooring, sit four belt sanders — four Ferris wheels of utility that Ellis, now 60, uses to achieve a level of sharpness so severe, he calls it “silly.”
If the restaurant business is part illusion — dining made to seem effortless by back-breaking work behind the scenes — then Ellis is the guy making sure the tools of the trade are up to the task. To the people he serves, his work and the convenience of his service are essential.
But there's more to the relationship than that.
“Everybody loves Mick, not just having their knives sharpened by him,” said Chris Daley, executive chef at Sullivan's Steakhouse, where Ellis has sharpened knives every week for close to four years. “He's a jack-of-all-trades. He's a great guy.”
On a recent morning, Ellis started his route at Sullivan's, the first of several scheduled stops in a solid eight-hour day. He entered the kitchen through a staff door, exchanging hellos with the half-dozen workers preparing the kitchen for the day ahead and making small talk with an assistant chef. One by one, he gathered up the restaurant's knives — chef's knives, butcher knives, paring knives, boning knives — and replaced them with loaners, marked with a red band of tape around the handle, to be used while he was gone. It wouldn't be long.
Back in his truck, his work began.
“This is the part I love,” he said.
The truck — a rolling, whirring, temperature-controlled workshop powered by a propane generator that kicks on with the flip of a switch — is a sight to behold. And yet the most critical piece of equipment in Ellis' arsenal, the instrument by which his obsessive pursuit of perfection is measured, might be an ordinary 8½-by-11-inch sheet of paper.
Once Ellis has worked on a knife — once he's “set the edge” using one spinning wheel, sharpened it with another and polished it with a third — he'll swipe it across the corner of a sheet of paper.
He wants a clean cut, of course, but really he's listening. He wants it to slice quietly.
“You can tell just by listening to it how sharp a knife is,” he said.
Forty minutes later he was back inside Sullivan's, running the newly glistening knives through the restaurant's dishwasher and collecting his loaners. At a prep station, he traded knives with a worker cutting limes.
“Here you go, my man,” he said. “Be safe. Watch those fingers.”
The job is not without its hazards.
Not long after Ellis bought the business, the polishing wheel pulled a knife out of his hands. The flying knife carved a half-inch chunk out of the surface of the countertop before ricocheting off the wall Ellis was facing and halfway across the trailer, into the opposite wall.
He told himself he'd never lose his grip like that again, and he hasn't. But he's had his share of cuts.
“I've filleted this finger three times,” he said, pointing to the middle digit of his left hand. Sometimes he doesn't even notice it right away — that's how sharp the knives get. He'll reach for something and graze the blade and carry on for several seconds before realizing he nearly sliced off his finger. Silly sharp.
With close to 90 regular customers around town — most of the restaurants requiring his services every week or two — planning can be tricky. Run too far into prep time for lunch or dinner, and chefs get nervous. It's one reason Ellis prides himself on his speed as much as the quality of his work. A stop that took him two or three hours a few years ago, when he started out, might take 30 minutes now.
At Midtown Crossing later that day, Ellis parked his truck in a sprawling concrete loading zone and made his way through an arterial, staff-only hallway until he reached the kitchen of Crave, where he gave a brief salute to the executive chef, exchanged pleasantries with the sous chef, made small talk with the pastry chef and traded hellos with assistants, wait staff and dishwashers.
As he roamed the kitchen, a smiling waitress nodded toward his hands.
“Every time you come in, you look like Edward Scissorhands, with all those knives,” she said.
The lunchtime rush was over and the pervading mood was lighthearted, trash-talking sarcasm.
There are probably places less politically correct than a professional kitchen, but not many. Every restaurant has a back story, Ellis said, and everyone seems to know everyone else's business. It's not an environment for the meek, but there's a realness to the people he can relate to. He sees how tough the business can be: the pressure on general managers and executive chefs to keep overhead low; the hard work over long hours with little pay for staffers. Respect is hard-earned, to be sure, but the path to it is good work.
“One thing I've learned about this business is once you have the respect of the chef, there is a tremendous amount of loyalty,” he said.
The loyalty runs both ways.
A couple of years ago, Ellis was diagnosed with throat cancer. For six weeks he underwent radiation treatment but continued to make his rounds.
“I know he was very, very tired and worn out,” Pam said. “But when you feel that pressure of owning your own business, when you're the only person really in town (doing what you do), I'm sure that's tugging at you when you think you need to lay down.”
Earlier this year Ellis had hip-replacement surgery. As he was recovering, he fell and broke his leg. This time he was out for close to five months. He worried more about his clients than his business — about his clients' needs, about making his calls. He's been catching up ever since. He walks with a considerable limp, but doesn't complain.
“I think it's his pride in his craftsmanship,” Pam said. “There's definitely an art to doing it right. I think that's always been his motivator.”
She wonders when he'll sell the business and retire for good, make more time for traveling and camping beyond their annual family gathering in Minnesota. She hopes it's sooner rather than later, and truth be told, there are some days when the idea doesn't sound bad to him, either. But then he heads into the kitchen at Happy Hollow Club, where some 60 knives await, or Anthony's Steakhouse, where the sheer volume of food served in a day leaves him breathless, or to the dozens of other restaurants around town where hard work leads to dull knives.
“I spent my entire career in a fenced-in, razor-wire compound, and now I have a business that takes me all over town,” he said. “I truly do love this.”
Contact the writer:
402-444-1056, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/kclogan