In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Quintin Middleton.
In 2008, after six years of working as a bladesmith’s apprentice, learning to craft hunting knives and swords, Quintin Middleton had a life-changing dream. “The Holy Spirit told me to make chef’s knives,” he says. “That gave me a direction of where to go and how to pursue this career.”
This epiphany led Middleton to compile a long list of every top chef in Charleston, the closest city to his rural Saint Stephen, South Carolina home. He called each person on the list, attempting to sell his custom knives, but every one of them turned him down. It wasn’t until 2010, when Craig Deihl, then the executive chef at Cypress, gave him the opportunity to observe his kitchen that Middleton was able to get his foot in the door.
Seeing how knives were used in the restaurant allowed Middleton to tailor-make them for Craig and his team. “They told their friends, who told their friends, who told their friends, and it just snowballed into this beautiful relationship,” Middleton remembers of his early success.
Thirteen years later, Middleton’s company Middleton Made Knives is renowned for its high-carbon, stainless, and Damascus steel chef’s knives that are outfitted with striking, colorful handles. Chefs like Sean Brock, Kwame Onwuachi, JJ Johnson, Guy Fieri, and Marcus Samuelsson are fans of the blades. Middleton has even developed a popular folding chef’s knife and is working on creating a miniature version.
Here, Middleton shares his slow-but-steady career path, what success means to him, and why honing his craft is the most important pursuit.
Eater: What’s your favorite part about your job?
Quinton Middleton: At first, my favorite part was the finished product and seeing all of my work come together. But now, after doing it for so long, it’s having the end user say, “Hey, I love your product.” Or when somebody that bought my knives 13 years ago is like, “Oh man, I love you and I read about you in the article. Can I take a picture with you? Can I get your autograph?” That feels good now.
What was your first job?
My first job I ever had was detailing cars. I always liked working with my hands, and at that time I needed money to help my mom. I needed to go to school and I didn’t want to be a burden on her for my tuition, so I made it work.
Did you go to culinary school or college?
I went to school to be an aircraft mechanic. It was a technical school called Trident Technical College. I know how to work on airplanes and jets, but at that time no one hired me so I became an industrial mechanic, working for Mercedes-Benz. We made the Sprinter vans; I worked on the overhead conveyors and conveyor belts, trains, and things like that. I learned how to weld and use machines to make and fix things.
How did you learn to make knives?
I used to work in this local mall and this guy came in and he said, “I make knives for a living.” And my eyes lit up and I asked him, “Hey, can you teach me?” His name is Jason Knight, and I was his apprentice for six years. He taught me all the ins and outs: how to craft a knife, how to ensure my knives are straight, and how [to make it so] everything flows in the transition from handle to blade. [It was] just like when an executive chef teaches a line cook how to check the temperature of the steak. He was my executive chef.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?
The biggest challenge was the first sale and getting someone to believe in me as much as I believed in myself. That was the hardest part: someone taking a chance or taking their funds to say, “Hey, I like what you’re doing and I want to support you.” Once I knew how to make knives, I had to learn how to be charming. Marketing is a whole other skill.
When was the first time you felt successful?
I’m very hard on myself. Even now, I feel like I haven’t made it. I’m a very humble person, but I’ve reached certain goals. Success is an open highway, so [how you define success] depends on which exit you get off. I’ve been in the Wall Street Journal, I’ve been in the New York Times, I’ve been in Forbes, I’ve been in GQ. I’ve done that, but it’s not that fulfilling. The one thing that is success for me is when my son told me, “Dad, I see your work ethic.”
Did you have any setbacks? What were they?
I hate to pull race into it, but as a young Black man in my career, no one would share information. So a lot of it was trial and error. And this was before you could go Google anything or look on YouTube and become a YouTube prodigy. So I had to make every mistake. The best tools I have in my toolbox are mistakes. All the things that I’ve learned and all the hiccups and all the money I’ve lost have propelled me to the station I’m in now.
How did the pandemic affect your career?
Actually, it affected my career in a positive way. Everybody was home. Everybody was on social media. Everybody had nowhere to go, so everybody needed to cook. They needed better tools. Their knives were crappy. I was in my workshop anyway, and I was making knives and posting them on social media, so people bought them. The pandemic was horrible. And the fact is, a lot of people lost their lives and families were destroyed. The whole world was at a standstill. But I was able to take something catastrophic, basically broken, and use it to make something beautiful.
What would surprise people about your job?
People take their tools for granted. Most people think of cooking as a chore. So now that there’s this cooking boom and everybody’s getting better recipes, they realize their knives are dull. Most people have been using their knives for 50 years and have never sharpened them. They throw them in the dishwasher just like a fork. But now people are getting lamb and scallops and all of these things that really take money and time to cook. If you have this $95 Wagyu steak, do you want to use that raggy steak knife to cut it?
How are you making change in your industry?
I’m a firm believer in representation. So as a Black man, I need to show that it can be done in a positive light. We’re more than entertainers, we’re more than football players, we’re more than that. Everybody looks at the chef, when nobody really looks at the farmer and nobody really looks at the baker. Now that the light has been shined on the other craftsmen and artisans, being able to represent myself fluently, articulately, and charmingly plays a part.
I’ve also taught plenty of people to make knives. I’ve got this motto: Each one lift one. I’ve called individuals out of the blue to encourage them along the way. If I like an Instagram picture of their knife making process, I’ll reach out to them and say, “Hey, I see what you’re doing. Keep it up. Keep learning your craft.” Just to give that nudge, because being the person in the workshop or in the kitchen, you rarely hear the praise.
What would you have done differently in your career?
I would’ve been a little bit more aggressive in marketing and building my brand instead of taking this long to build a brand, but I’m glad I did it this way. Because if you think about music, there are these artists that come out hot and fiery with that one track that everybody likes and then they fizzle out. One hit wonders — you never hear from them again. But the ones that create and take the long journey and still push and push and push, over time people respect them for their craft.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?
A friend of mine did this underground dining event to showcase artists. It was my first show, I didn’t know anything, I was just sitting there hoping someone would come over and look at the knives. And this young lady came to me and said, “Work the crowd. Ain’t nobody going to come up to you. Work the crowd.” And so after that, I worked the crowd.
What advice would you give someone who wants your job?
Take time to learn your craft. I always say, sex sells and performance tells. What I mean by that is, if it looks good to the eye, it brings you to the table, but the performance of it keeps you coming back.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.