Yohhei Sato, owner of celebrated Portland knife sharpening company Sato Sharpening, died of unknown causes Saturday, August 13. He was 37.
Sato’s knife sharpening career and boisterously warm personality made him something of a Portland legend, both within the restaurant community and outside it. He sharpened the chefs’ knives of Portland’s most celebrated restaurants and carts, like the now-closed Ataula, salumeria Olympia Provisions, and countless Portland food carts around the city. But Sato also held several knife sharpening events for the public, at places like Coffee Beer and Migration Brewing. Following his death, Portlanders began sharing an an outpouring of memories and messages of grief for Sato on social media. “He was loved by everyone,” says college friend Kristopher Mahoney-Watson. “Portland’s not going to be the same without him.”
Sato grew up in Niigata Prefecture in Japan, before moving to Portland for college. His friends remember him regularly sharing pride surrounding products from Niigata, including tofu, rice, and knives. “He was very proud of where he came from,” says longtime friend Noelle Eaton. “He told us everything came from his prefecture — kimonos, rice, tofu. And I would say, ‘What isn’t from your prefecture, Yohhei?’”
He became involved with the Portland Community College theater community, where he quickly made friends who admired his gregarious nature and sense of humor. After college, he eventually began working for the Samurai Bento food cart downtown, serving katsu and agedashi tofu to regulars and friends. Over time, Sato became interested in honing his knife sharpening skills, and began to bring his whetstone to the Alder Street food cart pod to sharpen the knives of his neighbors. In 2014, Sato founded Sato Sharpening, a knife sharpening business that quickly spread in popularity among Portland’s chefs. Businesses like Guero, the People’s Pig, and Tamale Boy became early adopters of Sato Sharpening, impressed with his work and charmed by his personality.
Another early client was the Landmark Saloon, a bar he frequented as a beloved regular. Friends say Sato almost always visited the bar for Whiskey Wednesdays, a country music night at the Southeast Portland watering hole. “The overwhelming privilege of knowing this beautiful human has been such a precious fucking gift,” a post on the Landmark Saloon’s Instagram reads, following Sato’s death. “Going head first through life with a combination of joy, style, and heroic honesty that made us all want grab on and enjoy the ride with him.”
Justin Hintze, the owner of fried chicken cart Jojo, was another client of Sato’s, but he also considered him a friend — on monthly visits to sharpen knives, the two men would talk about podcasts and comedy for hours. “He was maybe one of the funniest people I’d ever met,” Hintze says. “He had certain things he was passionate about and he was on fire about them. You could talk knives for hours and hours, and he loved talking about his hometown. He was just an absolute light. He brightened every room he was in.”
Outside of comedy and knife sharpening, Sato was an avid fan of the outdoors. Friends of his from college theater would regularly spend their summer weekends backpacking, or getting out in nature. “We have a group of friends who we called the Fuck Yeah Let’s Do It club — Yohhei’s name, of course,” Eaton says. “At the drop of a dime, he’d say, ‘Let’s go hiking, let’s go camping.’”
Scott Weidlich, another member of the Fuck Yeah Let’s Do It Club and a former roommate, saw Sato’s enthusiasm for the outdoors as just another facet of his overarching verve for life, one he shared with the people around him. Like a true Portlander, Sato was a regular participant in the Naked Bike Ride. When Weidlich told Sato he wasn’t sure he could ride a bike, Sato agreed to push Weidlich in a shopping cart for the entire bike ride. He did again for two more years. “You just noticed the absolute unbridled enthusiasm he had for anything he was doing. Anything he did he was choosing to do; he’d go for it,” Weidlich says. “I know I’ll never meet another Yohhei.”
A group of Sato’s friends have organized a GoFundMe memorial fund, to support his family traveling to Portland and cover funeral costs; hundreds of people have donated thousands of dollars within the fundraiser’s first 24 hours. “Something I learned from him was to love hard,” Eaton says. “I was always in awe of how hard he loved.”
Correction: This story has been corrected to share Sato’s correct age; he was 37, not 36.