Over the past decade, Quintin Middleton has become a name synonymous with handmade culinary knives that are as supremely functional as they are sublimely beautiful. His creations have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Vogue and GQ. While the untrained eye can easily admire them, only an icon — like, say, Bob Kramer of Kramer Knives, adored by the likes of Thomas Keller and Anthony Bourdain — can fully appreciate their next-level craftsmanship.

“I’m coming for you, Bob,” Middleton once playfully told his hero in a phone call, and Kramer has deep respect for the 37-year-old rising star. “Quintin’s got such a great enthusiasm and positivity,” raves Kramer. “He’s tireless in his pursuit of making better knives and building his business.”

But from the start, Middleton’s ambition has been about more than making the best knives. For him, the dream is to create something that brings jobs to rural South Carolina. The makers of samurai swords in Japan say that heat-treating steel breathes life into a sword. Middleton intends to use the fire within himself to breathe life into his community. Considering the journey he has taken, I wouldn’t bet against him.

quintin middleton uses a hammer to shape a piece of carbon steel into a knife after its removed from the forge
Gavin McIntyre
quintin middleton closely monitors carbon steel in his forge as it heats up in his workspace
Gavin McIntyre

An hour’s drive north of Charleston lies St. Stephen, a little town with a population just under 2,000. In a quiet cul-de-sac on the outskirts sits a compound where Middleton lives with his wife and business partner, Kendra, and their two kids, forging the exquisite Middleton Made Knives that are renowned across the country.

I cruise slowly down the gravel road and park in the grass beside his new home, currently under construction. By the time I step outside, he’s greeting me with an outstretched, work-gloved hand. We had met a week earlier at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, where he presided over a table draped in a white tablecloth, every square inch covered by his stunning chef’s knives, paring knives, fillet knives, cleavers, and his newest creation: a crowdfunded folding chef’s knife called the Ona.

“I have two rules. It needs to perform well, and it needs to look sexy.”

There, he held court in a black leather jacket zipped to his neck and a different set of gloves to keep fingerprints off the blades, sharing the fruits of his labor with all manner of aspiring foodies. At his home, I saw the other side of the show table. A world of grinder belts, steel dust and hard work. I would come to learn that Middleton’s ability to move in and out of different circles is one of the keys to his success.

“That’s not just my cool swagger, that’s a limp,” he says as we make our way to his shop, referring to a physical disability resulting from nerve damage in his leg caused by a benign tumor that compressed his spinal cord. Parked in and around his shop are a golf cart, a three-wheeled motorcycle and a two-wheeled electric motorcycle that help him easily traverse his property. Everyone I have spoken to — his friends and mentors — confirms my impression of a man who rises to face this measure of adversity like he would any other. As an ordained minister and a “very spiritual person,” his well of positive resolve runs deep.

The inside of Middleton’s workshop is dark on this overcast day, with fluorescent lights hanging where they’re needed most, like over the band saw he uses to cut the knife shapes out of sheets of stainless steel, or above the row of six grinders where he freehand-grinds his blades. Metal dust clings to everything, and on the wall hang hundreds of grinder belts, each with a different job to do.

Middleton makes both stainless steel and carbon steel knives, and each type begins in a different way. Stainless steel knives are cut out of small sheets of steel in a process called stock removal. Carbon steel blocks start off thicker and are heated in a forge and hammered out or kneaded into shape.

“A lot of people romanticize forging, and say that’s the only way to make knives, but truthfully, everything is forged,” he explains. That’s because stainless steel has already been forged in the manufacturing process, whereas with carbon steel, you complete that step manually. “I learned how to do forging first, but after having all these issues with my body, forging is a little harder on my body and stock removal is easier for me,” he says. Yet Middleton still makes knives both ways, and he makes a lot of them — typically 30 a month.

Once the basic shape is outlined, Middleton uses belt grinders with varying grit levels to fine-tune the silhouette. Then it undergoes heat treatment. The first stage is high heat, around 1500 degrees Fahrenheit, for 15 minutes. Once rapidly cooled, the metal is extremely hard but also brittle. That’s where tempering — reheating the blade at 400 degrees over two hours — comes in, lending much-needed resilience to the final product. One needs a deep understanding of how to use heat to manipulate the grain structure of the steel for the perfect balance of hardness and strength.

Next, Middleton grinds the bevel, or the cutting edge, of the knife. He etches a line down the middle of the steel as his grind-to point. “Everything for me is done by hand,” he says, and this freehand grinding stage seems more art than science.

A chef’s knife must be super thin for delicate tasks, unlike a hunting knife. Or as he puts it: “A chef’s knife is a Ferrari, and a Bowie knife is a Hummer.” When the blade is finished, he adds the handle material, using grinders to carve out his signature contoured “Coke bottle” handle shape, a tribute to the style of his mentor, Master Bladesmith Jason Knight.

When does he know a new knife makes the proverbial cut? “I have two rules,” says Middleton. “It needs to perform well, and it needs to look sexy.”

quintin middleton outlines the bottom of a carbon steel chef knife to craft into a handle
Gavin McIntyre
quintin middleton uses a grinder to sharpen a stainless steel chef knife
Gavin McIntyre

Family matters to Middleton. He comes from a military legacy that he credits for his strong work ethic. He was born at Fort Knox, where his father was stationed at the time. And he now lives on land once owned by his paternal grandfather, who served in two wars and retired as a sergeant major, the army’s highest enlisted rank. When Middleton was growing up, he would wake to the sound of his grandfather whistling as he came to knock on the boy’s window and say, “Don’t let the sun catch you in bed,” remembers Middleton. “That meant I had to get up and go help him.”

When it was Middleton’s time to follow in the footsteps of his father, uncles and grandfather, however, it didn’t feel right. He asked for his grandfather’s blessing to take a different path. “The Middletons have put a lot of blood in the army,” the old man told him. “It’s alright for you to sit this one out.”

After high school, Middleton was studying aircraft mechanics at a technical college and working part-time at a knife and cigar shop in a nearby mall when a customer shopping for a katana mentioned he made knives for a living. That customer was Knight, and Middleton — a lifelong tinkerer who, inspired by Conan the Barbarian, made swords and daggers by hand as a hobby — was thrilled to imagine it was a real profession he could pursue. The teenager began driving an hour each way to apprentice with Knight as often as he could.

“He did this mysterious Mr. Miyagi thing for me,” says Middleton, describing a teacher who gave him specific tasks and then walked away to let him sink or swim on his own. “He allowed me to fail... and always said, ‘If you’re serious, I’m serious.’”

Middleton was quite serious.

“Whenever someone is willing to put forth the work and effort, I’ll share the information,” says Knight. “I try to push all the nonsense out of your way, to get to the place where you’re supposed to be.” Knight gets choked up just talking about Middleton, his “most surprising student, and also the most successful.”

Middleton was mainly making outdoor knives when he dreamt God told him to start making chef’s knives. Knight said to do so, he’d have to invest in an electric grinder; Middleton was still grinding his knives by hand because he couldn’t afford one.

“I told him he needed to sell something to buy one,” says Knight. All Middleton had of value was a gold coin collection he’d inherited from his grandfather, and he told Knight he couldn’t sell the coins because they were his legacy to his kids.

“I grabbed his hands and I turned them over and said, ‘That’s your heritage right there,’” recalls Knight. “He sold his coins and pretty soon every great chef in Charleston had one of his knives.”

But it wasn’t that easy. After losing his job as an industrial mechanic in 2012, Middleton found himself at a crossroads: look for a new job and keep making knives on the side, or go all in trying to make knife-making that job. Thankfully Kendra, whom he met in high school band class and married in 2007, believed in her husband and his dream. She encouraged him to focus on his knives, going back to work to help support the family while he hustled to take his business to the next level.

“A lot of people have talent, but Quintin had the drive and humility to go with it. You could either help him out, or you could tell he’s gonna do it without you.”

As Charleston’s culinary scene boomed, Middleton made a list of all the top chefs in the city and approached each of them with his knives. Every single one rejected him. Undeterred, he shifted tactics, asking one of those chefs to help him develop his chef’s knife. And for the next two years, he refined his design by creating countless prototypes for the executive chef and chef de cuisine at Cypress, then one of Charleston’s top restaurants.

“He just walked in one day and handed us a case of knives to test out,” says Bob Cook, now the executive chef at the Charleston restaurant Edmund’s Oast. “We would tell him, ‘This one’s too long,’ or ‘This one’s too heavy,’ and sure enough he’d come back in a couple weeks with an updated version.”

Every detail was refined, down to things like rounding off the spine so it’s comfortable to pinch the top of the blade for long hours at a time.

“A lot of people have talent, but he had the drive and humility to go with it,” explains Cook. “You could either help him out, or you could tell he’s gonna do it without you.”

The two are still friends a decade later, and Cook owns a number of Middleton’s knives, including one from the first series he ever made.

“He always had a way bigger plan,” says Knight. “He was developing his own market and took a different road, selling at food and wine festivals instead of knife shows — and now Quintin is a master maker in his own right.”

While perfecting chef’s knives, Middleton started working on something different after looking at a broken Japanese santoku blade and thinking it would make a cool folding chef’s knife. He refined the design over eight years, iterating prototypes into what eventually became the undeniably cool Ona (see p. 136). To scale production at the level of quality he wanted, he teamed up with the folks at Idaho’s Millit Knives after meeting them at a trade show.

“I know the design, I know how to make the knife, and I know what I’m looking for, but there are people who are better than me in the manufacturing world,” says Middleton. “And I needed someone to help me get it to a different level.”

This partnership marks an evolution from purely freehand grinding to designing knives and having them fabricated at scale — a critical step toward his dream of building a business locally to manufacture his knives. He compares learning about the manufacturing process today to what it felt like collaborating with chefs a decade ago. Back then, making chef’s knives was his new frontier, and now it’s manufacturing that will open doors and allow him to branch out even further, into knives for hunting and fishing, with the help of other skilled craftspeople.

quintin middleton’s ona stainless steel folding knife
Gavin McIntyre
quintin middleton closely monitors carbon steel in his forge as it heats up in his workspace behind his home
Gavin McIntyre

On the banks of the Ashley River 15 miles northwest of Charleston lies the remains of a vast estate called Middleton Place. The Middletons began building it in the mid-1700s, making money from rice and indigo on nearby tracts, but the riverfront mansion was burned down by Union soldiers in 1865.

The mansion was never rebuilt, but there’s still a sprawling English-style garden there. And in this garden is a tree known as the Middleton Oak, estimated to be nearly 1,000 years old. It was there when Quintin Middleton’s ancestors were enslaved by the Middleton family.

Last year, Middleton made one of his chef’s knives with an oak handle from a branch of this tree. “What are my ancestors saying to me?” he asks. “‘I’m glad you’re taking something that was brutal and building something beautiful.’”

“My grandfather always told me that your name is everything. And I’m defining what my name is.”

Middleton’s community is not just St. Stephen, but also the broader Gullah-Geechee community, an African American diaspora unique to the Southeast. Gullah and Geechee people are the descendants of enslaved people who retained close linguistic and cultural ties to West Africa because of their geographic separation from the rest of the American South. They built Charleston, they are the heart of the entire region, and when Middleton starts manufacturing knives here, he plans to call his line the Geechee Boy Series.

His own last name may be connected to a brutal chapter of South Carolina’s past, and his family’s past, but he sees things differently. “My grandfather always told me that your name is everything,” says Middleton. “And I’m defining what my name is.”

Part of doing so is not taking the easiest path. “I could have gotten a big knife company to produce my knives and I’d be fine, living a great life,” he says. “But to say, ‘No, I’m going to build something.’ That’s the hardest way.”

Middleton’s dream is that 50 years from now, he’ll be known as a man who started something from the ground up and breathed life into the region. “It’s not just me making a knife,” he says. “It’s building something for a community and trying to be a beacon for hope.”

From the inside of his shop, it’s clear more hard work is needed to shift from free-grinding artisanal chef’s knives to overseeing the manufacture of a product line bigger than what his hands alone could ever do. But Middleton is prepared. “For the past 10 years, I’ve built my foundation,” he says. “And now it’s time for me to build up.”

Toward the end of our visit, Middleton asks me if I do any gardening. Then he tells me that he often thinks about a lesson his aunt gave him for planting tomatoes.

“She taught me that you don’t let them bear fruit right away,” he says. “When you start to see the first little flowers, you have to snip off the buds because you need the stalk to get strong. That way, it’ll have the strength to bear the fruit.”

quintin middleton sits in his workspace behind his home in saint stephen, south carolina
Gavin McIntyre
gear patrol issue 18
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