Chaz Tiede

Matador Sharp


Chaz Tiede travels the city on his bicycle, sharpening knives. He operates on Instagram under the name Matador Sharp.

You have a pretty unique occupation.

Yeah, I am a blade sharpener. I sharpen primarily culinary cutlery and implements for kitchens, taking blades that have folded over on their edges and re-edging them, getting them nice and sharp so cooks can take things apart easier. The equipment I have is light enough to do that while being transported via bicycle around the city. The service is charged on a per-blade basis, depending on the type of environment, and is by appointment. It’s a very simple business. I’ve been doing this since July of 2013.

What motivated you to get into this type of work?

I had to come to terms with the fact that I was going to be leaving the world of sales. Jeff Ademek first took the time to teach me, he's an old salt. I also had a buddy, Brian Frakes at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, and caught him in a dish room one day, cornered him and asked him about culinary school. He said: no way, if you want to learn to cook you can work for me. So I went within that same company, from a junior woodchuck sales manager to cooking in a union, main-line, culinary, garde manger kitchen. The property was very old and had five kitchens in it, and I got my ass kicked for the better part of eight months.

I got involved after I turned thirty and my body wasn’t in any shape prepared to deal with that type of stress. But I got some very good and healthy perspective on how food works today: seeing the amount of volume and working with different people; we’re talking a mix of recent Hmong refugees, single mothers, people on work release doing what they need to do to stay on the right side of the system. Everyone is working their asses off chopping things down and dicing things up to get into convention buffet food.

I was sharpening in a retail environment, learning from different chefs that came through. They were kind enough to fill me in on what they’ve done and what was expected from a knife. And after getting fired I started this as a way to do it professionally on my own.

This started from a very angry place. I was fed up with what I felt was this broken system of corporatized hospitality where, in the end, the only people experiencing the product of the hospitality are the upper management and primary shareholders of said corporate entity. I felt a lot of the very basic principles of taking care of people were completely lost. I started this on a real angry tirade, with a lot of ironic, subversive energy, attacking the system.

Now I’m at a point where I need to take stock of things. You can only get so far by being mad and pissed off, that energy only goes so far. And now, to actually run a business and be serious about making your mark as a business, things have to be done in a certain way.

Here’s a knife for you to sharpen. Can you walk me through the process?

This is a typical German chef’s knife. It has a nice bolster at the pinch point. The bolster actually comes to 20°, which is exactly where that edge wants to be sharpened, the degree angle that the edge is at. Some chefs prefer to have it honed before edging the steel. Some don’t, it’s a matter of preference.

I start on my second-thickest abrasion. The most important thing is that you reciprocate what you do with one edge on the other. This is an industrial diamond paste over the stone, and it actually rips away steel from the blade. After I make a few passes I’ll see how much steel is coming off the actual edge, and I do that just by running a towel over it.

I can tell how sharp a knife is. This thumb is calloused over, so what I’m actually doing is cutting into my thumb with the knife and I want it to cut in and pull the fingerprints away a bit, the little ridges. If it sticks, that’s the way I know it’s where it want it to be.The best way to test if something’s sharp is to just take a piece of paper, it should just go right through the paper without any resistance. The problem with that is that it starts to dull the blade quickly [laughs] So I prefer to cut into my finger, get a feel for what needs to happen.

I try and make the edge as consistent as possible so that when you slice your product you have the same feel all the way through. I go to a lighter abrasion to do finer edge work. You always want to start with thicker abrasions and work your way down. I use water. With these you can use water or oil.

With good quality knives, they only need to be sharpened once a year. I’m pretty up front with the home kitchens that I do. Honing the steel before and after, especially if you’re cooking a big thing, a holiday meal, and you’re taking down a ton of produce, honing the knife before and after is what will help keep that edge.

What I’m doing, I’m actually taking steel off the edge. Whereas honing is taking that edge--- there are tiny microscopic teeth on this edge and they get out of whack, or bent over on one side, folded over, the honing just takes that and lines them up. Another challenge is making sure you get the entire edge, all the way to the tips. Some of the pickier chefs I’ve sharpened criticized the fact that the tips weren’t as sharp as the rest of the blade. I’ve improved that over time, my technique. Just being patient.

Is getting a new client as simple as demonstrating your sharpening skills?

I wish it was. When I first started I was pretty naive thinking I could go along the alleys and ring a bell and people would come running out to me with their dull stuff. Unfortunately, I think people thought I was trying to rob them half the time I approached them from the back of the restaurant, not being a known, recognized vendor. [laughs] I learned over time to be more cautious, and the whole Instagram thing makes it a lot easier because if a chef and I share a visual connection it makes it easier for me to approach them and say: hey, let me know if you’ve got a dull knife.

Most days you travel the city on your bike, adding things to Instagram and looking for clients?

Yeah. The city just asks to be recorded, and now with iPhones it’s easy to do that, very casually. The city is telling a story, and all I’m doing is trying to snap, get the phone up for it, and show off all the cool things that are going on. Which is never a hard thing to do here. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of people working in food are very adept at understanding and telling stories. So if your story jives with their story it’s only natural that you’d network with them via this visual algorithm at work, this artistic meritocracy thing. But as cheesy as it sounds, it helps connect people visually, in a very quick, rapid-fire way. And we’re just beginning to understand that.

One thing I definitely want to branch out into is to be able to give people--- especially people who are visiting Chicago with the mindset of coming to one of the great food cities on the planet--- an ability to access some points of the city via bicycle, being able to ingest it via sight and smell and get a quick, real peek at the less-traveled paths, the real food economy that’s going on right now. I want to tell that story in a fashion that’s specialized, but it’s an opportunity to showcase some areas of town that you don’t get showcased as much, especially to the folks that are visiting.

Tell me about being from Wisconsin, and moving to Chicago.

I’m from Sheboygan County, which is a huge dairy producer, an area that sits on the lake. It’s very pretty. I grew up there, finished school in Madison, met my wife in Milwaukee, and we decided to move here in 2012. She’s a Chicago girl so we were always gonna probably live here, we both love the city. So we moved here in 2012.

Of course Milwaukee is a German city, and there’s a fantastic beer culture and meat culture and cheese culture, and in Wisconsin you’re talking from farm to table, it’s always been that way there. Appreciating food and where it came from.

That’s where I feel like Chicago is key, when it comes to food. Geographically it’s been this natural hub. You get your cherries from Michigan, and sweet corn from Indiana, when the corn gets harvested. You know Wisconsin’s cheese. It’s always been that way here, this crux of trading. It goes way back before Fort Dearborn and DuSable, when Sauk tribes traded with Menomonee tribes and Fox tribes and would go back and forth with goods and services in this little swamp here. This has always been a city of hustlers, and that’s one of the reasons I love the city.

Where are you trying to take the sharpening business going forward?

We have to put knives over stones and produce some type of revenue to keep going on this adventure. We’re gonna have a presence at some pretty strategic markets, locations through the city during the good outdoor season. Then, mix in a variety of gigs with different classes going on in the city, different organizations to have a presence and then book home appointments off of those contacts, and start getting more folks out that can sharpen knives and actually produce something that can reach very deep into neighborhoods throughout the city, not just the bit that you live in.

That’s where we start talking about getting people paying jobs. That’s a big tenant of what a business should be contributing to the community. Gainfully employing somebody. That’s a big goal too.

Has the experience been as liberating as you hoped?

It’s awesome because it puts me in touch with a lot of like-minded people that have gone before me and taken these business risks, for better or worse. It makes me reach out to folks that I feel are doing a really good job, and doing that I’ve made a lot of friends. That’s been one of the best things about doing this in Chicago. Folks are pretty accessible, and pretty honest.

There are people here that get it. For example, last summer the Hyatt McCormick Place paid me to sharpen their banquet staff’s personal knives as a thank-you right at the very height of the convention season. They were doing all the off-site catering for the Air and Water Show, where just insane amounts of food have to be processed and distributed to all these VIP entertainment suites. It was thoughtful that at the point when the most was asked from those folks a company would be nice enough to have someone like me come in. That was a big responsibility, and an awesome, rewarding day at the office. I felt I like was providing some type of relief to these people that I can definitely relate to, you know? I’ve never professed to being a chef, or even really a professional cook. There are people out there sacrificing quite a bit for more than a decade or so just so they can take care of their families.

When it comes to frustrating things, sometimes I think you want to articulate things to folks and it just never comes across. When you start a business there’s the shocking revelation that not everybody can see what you see. That was a big shock to the system, and other folks that have started many businesses pointed the finger at me, you know? [laughs]

Is there anything you can say right now to dispel any misconceptions?

You know, sometimes they don’t really exist with what I do as a company, or my capacity as a knife sharpener. My biggest beef is: pay your employees. Pay them a living wage. Take care of the people you are putting in charge of taking care of people. We’re coming into a time where the consumer can tell. It may not even be overt, but they can tell subconsciously who gives a damn and who doesn’t. For a lot of restaurants and operations in hospitality that’s something they need to be paying attention to right now, and rethinking what the cost structure is for an employee.

When you go after home chefs, are you only looking for people with elaborate, expensive kitchens?

I don’t judge. The quality or type of knife doesn’t matter. People will tell stories: my grandpa gave this knife to me. The value in taking care of this thing is for a lot of people way beyond what they’re gonna appreciate on a cutting block. There’s being part of a story, being part of the narrative, warts and all. That’s one of the reasons I’m not gonna sit there and judge you on the type of culinary equipment you have.

However, the majority of my clients are creative professionals that work from home and have very high end home kitchens integrated into their workspaces. I get to spend time with people that are brilliant and doing amazing things throughout the city, both in terms of art and innovation. That’s a cool opportunity for me to showcase them in Instagram and give them a place in that story. I’m lucky to be able to do that in this day and age. People welcome you into their home, and offer you a cup of coffee. It’s really cool.

How about some of Chicago’s more high-profile chefs?

When it comes to the more celebrated chefs in town, I’m pretty lucky when they give me fifteen minutes. [laughs] I have a lot of respect for the more celebrated names, when they transition to a point where they’ve been cooking for twenty years and have these business empires to run, themselves as a brand, I’d like to feel I share some kinship with them... in a really, really poor-man’s fashion. [laughs] If you’re a celebrated cook I will sharpen your knife just like everybody else’s with the intent on making it the best edge for you that I can.

Matador Sharp

Matador Sharp

Interviewed by Vincent Labriola

Photos by Vincent Labriola (special thanks to Tony Philippi)

Colored by Peilin Tan