You have to drive a good 40 minutes north of town to reach Jason Knight's knife-making shack. Quintin Middleton's is another 30 minutes beyond that, off old Highway 52, down a dusty dirt road, in the open fields that his family used to farm. The houses of extended family — uncles, great-grandmother, grandparents — surround the open tin-metal shack where Charleston's premier maker of culinary knives hones his craft. But it's Knight's shack where Middleton goes for help when a winter ice storm knocks his power out for a week, when he needs inspiration, or when he wants to pass his journeyman smith's test. It's where Middleton began his journey to culinary bladesmith.
"God told me to make chef's knives," Middleton relates to me over the din of a high-speed belt grinder. His mentor Jason Knight breaks in, "I met Quintin at a knife store in Northwoods Mall. He started bringing by swords beat out of old lawnmower blades and telling me he wanted to make knives."
Knight speaks in rapid-fire cadence, bouncing between topics like the role of iron in the building of Egyptian pyramids and the appropriateness of outsourcing blade fabrication to foreign suppliers. He illustrates his point with a steady stream of knives he pulls from boxes and drawers. Some are fully formed masterpieces; others constitute studies in design, motifs, and ideas hammered out in cold steel.
"A regular guy would never see it, but it drives us nuts," Middleton tells me. He and Knight are examining a razor edge honed into a 9-inch chef's knife, and, although it looks as fine as any knife I've ever encountered and can effortlessly shave the hair from your arm, the blade is not perfect and must be refined. Such is the dedication that the duo bring to their art.
Middleton is known as the greatest culinary bladesmith in the South; Knight is renowned among knife collectors. "When we go to knife shows, there's people lined up to get his signature," Middleton tells me, "but when we go downtown to Charleston, nobody knows who he is."
As for Middleton, "The chefs love him," Knight says, "and that's great. He deserves recognition for what he's doing."
It hasn't been an easy road for Middleton. He begged Knight for months to teach him, repeatedly showing up at the shop to hang around and learn a thing or two. When Knight told Middleton he'd need some money to buy basic equipment, he sold a gold coin collection to purchase two grinders. A devout man, Middleton's faith drove him forward, and in prayer he found the notion that instead of producing the collectible knives that most high-end knifemakers specialize in, he would make utilitarian blades and sell them to top chefs. At first, Sean Brock wasn't buying, and neither was Craig Diehl. Today they both own Middleton-made blades, along with Mike Lata, Nathan Thurston, Sean Park, Linton Hopkins, Emeril Lagasse, Robert Irvine, Homar Kantu, and Michael Anthony, whose Gramercy Tavern sources its steak knives from Middleton's small shop.
Middleton hung out in Knight's studio day after day, week after week, and Knight would sometimes disappear into his house for an hour at a time, come back out and be surprised to find Middleton still there. Middleton thought Knight was testing his resolve and refused to quit. Today, they riff ideas back and forth as collaborators, the master and his apprentice engaged in the particulars of the art.
The two are particular about their blades. They refuse to source prefabricated blades from overseas as some other knifemakers do. The art must take place in the shop, and each blade is customized to the customers' needs. Middleton worked closely with Craig Deihl to develop his first designs, tailoring the grip and feel to the specifications of a practicing chef. Some of the blade, forged in the "Damascus" style, presents a fabulous patterned sheen within the metal blade. "I call it 'chatoyance'," Middleton tells me, describing the oil-slick glint that radiates from a custom blade. It's an effect impossible to achieve with prefabricated metal stamped by machine in China, a "cat's-eye" glint normally assigned to fine gemstones.
Demand outstrips supply of these fine culinary blades, and the prices of both Middleton and Knight's creations can approach $1,000 or more. But for such a price the customer gets a custom experience. Middleton often consults with a customer at great length, providing templates and drawing prior to fabricating the blade. The handle materials are sourced from fine woods and space-age materials: African blackwood, carbon fiber, and ivory. The finest works get handles of ironwood, which can top $100 just to source the raw material. The end result is often a one-off soliloquy design to customer specification.
These blades feel different than most knives. Custom fabrication achieves a balance, a heft and cutting precision that only use can fully derive.
Ask Quintin Middleton what ultimately creates such magic in a blade and he responds, "Forging is like the poor man taking whatever ingredients are on hand and making it into something, like cooking with whatever is in your kitchen."
Video feature from May 2012 story by Joshua Curry.