Off U.S. Highway 52, past the “Catfish for sale” sign, the Happy House restaurant and the WTUA gospel music station in St. Stephen, a rockin’ and rollin’ dirt road leads to a faded white trailer surrounded by open fields. A horse whinnies, unseen but nearby.
Behind the trailer is an ordinary storage shed. Here, in the unlikeliest of places, Quintin Middleton is making his dreams come true, one blade at a time.
Robert Irvine of “Restaurant: Impossible” fame has one, and Irvine gave Food Network colleague Guy Fieri one for his last birthday.
Chefs like good knives. Middleton wants his knives to be the object of their desires.
Middleton, 27, says he wants to be the Philip Simmons of knifemaking. Many people think he has the wherewithal .
His mentor, Jason Knight of Harleyville, believes in Middleton’s talent. Knight should know — the 40-year-old is a full-time knifemaker who is the only master bladesmith in South Carolina and one of only 110 in the world.
Knight saw something in Middleton and took him under his wing, which he doesn’t do for everybody.
“Quintin cared,” Knight says. “I have a really simple rule, if you care, I care.”
Knight also witnessed the maturation of Middleton, whom he calls his “brother.”
“He used to make all these kung-fu knives, all kind of crazy knives, theatrical pieces. One day he came out here with a chef’s knife. It showed me that he began to take it seriously. It became real. … I could see his work dramatically change. It went from like riding a bicycle to driving a sportscar.”
From a layman’s perspective, Middleton’s knives, made in either high carbon or stainless steel, feel good and look fantastic. Every part and every process is done by hand, from designing the templates to grinding the edges. His wood handles are a signature touch, crafted in a slightly curvy shape, “reminiscent of a Coke bottle,” he says. And they are very fetching in colorful and exotic woods , including box elder, redwood burl and a “black and wine” birch plywood.
One of the knives he produces is known as a Damascus style, a super-strong blade with a wavy pattern that comes from many layers of steel being folded and intertwined during forging.
Middleton has comfort in mind in another way: Because many chefs rest their fingers on top of the blade, he rounds that edge.
Middleton’s knives are sold mostly through his website, middletonmadeknives.com, but also at Charleston Cooks! But they don’t come cheap, ranging from an $80 paring knife to an $800 10-inch Damascus chef’s knife.
Middleton was born to a military family in Kentucky, but his father returned to the Lowcountry and the family’s roots when Middleton was an infant.
As Middleton grew up, he became fascinated by swords. “It all started watching movies, ‘Conan,’ ‘Star Wars’ and ‘He-Man.’ My imagination just ran with me … the idea that I could go on an adventure and play with a sword.”
One day, Middleton took a piece of tubing from their backyard swing set and hammered the metal flat, save for a “handle.” It was his first sword, and it made him mighty.
Fast forward to Middleton as a young adult. He is 19 and in school at Trident Tech to be an aircraft mechanic. He also works part time at a shop called Outman Knife & Cigars. There he meets Knight, who makes hunting and other outdoor knives, including swords, as well as chef’s knives.
Middleton wanted to learn, but “he didn’t show me right away,” he says. “He gave me tough love.”
It soon became obvious that Middleton needed his own equipment, like a $1,400 grinder. But how to come up with the cash?
Knight asks Middleton if he has anything to sell. Well, Middleton does have a small stash of gold, a purchase he made with his first credit card to start something for his children.
Middleton says Knight told him, “Those gold coins aren’t your legacy. Your legacy is in your hands.” Middleton sold them.
He began making knives, but still searched for his niche. One night he had a dream.
“God told me to make chef’s knives,” says Middleton, who is a deacon in his church and makes frequent references to his faith. “Me being obedient, I said, ‘Yes, Lord.’ ”
He made a list of the area’s top chefs and went a-calling, trying to sell them knives. All of them brushed him off. One was Craig Deihl of Cypress.
But “God told me to call him back,” Middleton says. He asked Deihl if he could help him develop a knife that chefs would want. Deihl agreed, and Middleton went to work.
Middleton would spend all day making a knife at the time, and took one to the chef. Deihl rejected it. Then again, and again, and again.
“Finally I made him a knife he liked,” Middleton says.
Deihl says as long as he had the time, he was glad to give Middleton the opportunity of an honest opinion, something he has done for others who want to learn. He told Middleton what he liked about the Japanese knives he buys — the weight, thickness, size, etc. — and Middleton was able meet those specifications. And then a few of his cooks bought them.
Deihl says he loves the uniqueness of the knives, although he doesn’t have one. “If you’re looking for something very artist-craftsman, it’s like buying from a local farmer. There’s not many people you know that make knives. Have I ever met any one of the people who made my knives? No. It’s like buying a tailored suit. How long do you want it? What style do you want?”
Deihl began introducing Middleton to his friends. jimihatt, who runs the local Guerrilla Cuisine underground supper club, allowed Middleton to display his knives at a dinner in 2010 as an artist.
That’s when the buzz started, Middleton believes. He started getting more orders and then a bit of press, including in Entrepreneur. A year ago, Garden & Gun magazine featured him, and Middleton’s name spread across the country. Prominent chefs starting buying, including Homaro Cantu of Moto in Chicago.
Television’s Irvine became a customer. Irvine told him that Middleton’s knife was the only one he uses in his home.
Things are looking up for Middleton, who is gunning for Garden & Gun’s “Made in the South” award. Last May, a California culinary school owner invited Middleton and his wife, Kendra, to fly out there and talk about his knives, expenses paid. Middleton had never been on a plane before.
Middleton, who has two young children, Michael, 2; and Leila, 1, is still dreaming. Someday, he would like to have a small artisan knife “factory” with maybe 10 employees, and envisions passing it on to his children. He has come up with a new tool he calls a “Beershucker,” a combination of a bottle opener and an oyster knife that he sells for $100. He is working on a folding chef’s knife made for those who travel.
Middleton remembers his father’s words. “My dad told me a man that doesn’t have a plan isn’t a man. You always have to have a plan.”
As for aspiring to legendary blacksmith Simmons’ reputation, “Hopefully I’ll be able to fill his shoes. … God willing.”