THE CUTTING EDGE
By Cristina Adams
I’VE ALWAYS TOLD PEOPLE THAT THE ONLY THINGS A GOOD FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST NEEDS ARE A SHARP KNIFE AND A GOOD CAMERA.
DR. STEPHEN PUSTILNIK isn’t your typical forensic pathologist. By day, the Philadelphia native consults, performs autopsies and occasionally testifies in court, but once the workday is over and the white lab coat comes off, this doctor turns to his other passion: designing and making knives.
He started out to be a vascular surgeon. But one day, during his residency at Hartford Hospital, Pustilnik attended a lecture given by the Chief Medical Examiner for the state of Connecticut. “Everyone else was snoring, and I was wide awake,” he recalls. And that was that. He switched specialties and never looked back. As his career progressed – from Dade County in Florida to Alabama to Galveston (where he became
Chief Medical Examiner in 2003), and finally to private practice in Houston – Pustilnik became increasingly frustrated with the poor quality of the tools at his disposal. “I’ve always told people that the only things
a good forensic pathologist needs are a sharp knife and a good camera,” he says. “You want the human tissue you’re cutting through – and whatever you’re finding in it – to be suitable for publication, and you don’t want it to look like you just cut through it with a circular saw. So I was always searching for a good sharpener when I should have been looking for a good-quality knife.” An avid gourmet cook, Pustilnik had an enviable collection of knives and waterstones in his kitchen. It occurred to him that if he could have sharp knives at home, why not for his autopsies, too? So he began hunting for a knife that could withstand bleach and formaldehyde, one that would keep its cutting edge, and found that a chalef, the knife used for centuries by kosher butchers, fit the bill perfectly.
Together with a knife-maker, Pustilnik designed a chalef, twenty inches long with a two-inch-wide blade, for his own professional use. He researched different types of steel and corrosion resistance, and dove into the science of metallurgy. It wasn’t long before word got around, and the good doctor’s custom knives were in high demand. Three years later, business is booming. Pustilnik gets about three orders per week – most often for steak knives, autopsy knives and slicing knives – from clients around the world. The most expensive of his designs features a Damascus steel blade and can cost thousands of dollars. Some boast ergonomic handles made from exotic woods with turquoise, marble or sterling silver spacers. Each knife takes from eight to twelve hours to make. And the business is mostly conducted through his website, although two stores – one in Texas and one in Missouri – want to carry his knives. Among his more high-profile clients are James Beard Award winner Chris Shepherd, chef/owner of Underbelly; Food Network celebrity chef Jet Tila; and Haylie Duff of the Cooking Channel’s The Real Girl’s Kitchen.
“It took years of using kitchen knives to come up with the ones I make now,” he says. “I wanted to know why one was good for cutting through a hard squash, while another was better for slicing an apple.”