Story and Secrets of an Artist Artisan
I have always asserted it: there is a particular relationship between our world or more generally that of cooking, with that of knives. A little ‘all sectors are characterized by a special link with their work tools but in this case there is more, something that in some cases comes close to obsession. We talked about it when we saw together the ideal set of knives for the competitions, in this post dedicated to competition knifes. If you are passionate about social it is possible that you have recently seen approaching our sector a new and interesting figure. His name is Mario Mattia and deals with the creation of handmade knives, made only on commission and with a high level of customization both as regards the blade and in relation to the finishes, starting from the handle.
In a market that inevitably turns more and more towards standardization of supply and large-scale production, Mario’s offer reminds us of forgotten epochs and of the myth of Japanese foremen and Samurai’s Katana. But in this case we talk about kitchen knives. Yes, because Mario Mattia represents a quite anomalous figure. We are used to conceiving the knowledge of artisan art as a value handed down from father to son and in some way saved from the inevitable impoverishment that economies of scale impose on the mass market. Mario instead arrives at the production through more tortuous paths: a childhood in the countryside divided between Campania, Molise and Lazio with a grandma cook by profession, then Artistic High School and Architetture School, during which he worked as a dishwasher to pay for his studies. From there the passage in the kitchen following the whole process of the mess, up to become a professional chef in restaurants between Lazio and Tuscany and get to the most trendy kitchens of Roman nightlife. The trend of catering to de-qualification has led him to resume the experiences of forging spent as a boy to make a profession, coming to production in response to the needs born of his experience as a final user.
It seemed like a good opportunity to try to get to know him better and we went to have a chat with him. We have discovered a pleasant and technically very well prepared person. It was certainly one of the most interesting interviews among those made so far, with intelligent answers, never banal from which emerges a richly variegated figure.
1. We are used to conceiving your work as a generational legacy, a heritage of craft art that is increasingly difficult to transmit from father to son. Instead you get there through more detailed and in many ways more interesting ways. Tell us who Mario Mattia is and how he gets to the passion for the forging of knives.
We are Italians and art is a national heritage that is slowly going to get lost, especially if we extend also craftsmanship to this term. This is true in all sectors and even more so in cutlery. I believe that my bond with this world derives from the fact of being born and having lived my childhood in the countryside, where my grandfather, as usued there, always had a knife in his pocket, because in that kind of context it could be useful at any moment, in helping you do any kind of practical work. The fact of producing them came instead a few years later when my self-taught nature led me to use heat as a simple means to straighten steel to make blades. Being a stubborn man, I tried over time to improve the result more and more, an experience that turned out to be very important.
2. Very often we see enthusiasts in the world of knives living the object of your work with a more approach to collecting than to practical use. How do you live it? In what percentage do you think it is an artistic production and in which a quality craftsmanship?
Collectors are a very important part of the world of cutlery because they bring richness, culture and movement. Despite this, I chose to keep myself out of that kind of market. My ambition is to build products intended for practical use, which give pleasure to those who use them. That’s why I started making knives and I produce them still today. Probably the sphere of collecting is the one that most closely approaches the concept of “art”, through the jewel-knives that in addition to expensive incisions and decorations can involve more than 300 hours of work. I much more humbly prefer to concentrate on practical blades, which maybe involve only 50 hours of work but that I like to take to the extreme of their possibilities. Because my knives have to work and work well.
3. One of the added values of your service is the possibility of customizing the knife. Through which choices is it possible to do it? These are discriminating factors more affecting the quality spectrum or the specifications of the finished product?
The knife is a tool that is always personal and the variables of customization are almost endless. I will never have one identical to the other because each of my clients has different requests and needs, both in terms of quality and specifications of the blade, both in terms of finishes. If you also will find two apparently identical knives of mine, it is very possible that they differ in less obvious elements such as the hardness of the blade.
There is not an ideal knife, but it would certainly be a kitchen knife. I am very close by philosophy to the Japanese culture of production, aimed at practical knives in which every detail is studied to obtain a better performance. even supposed it exists then, my ideal knife would be Japanese, probably a Takeda or a Moritaka, a virgin knife with a very high carbon content. May be a Sanmai (which in Japanese means “three layers”), that is a knife with a very hard fixed steel center and softer steel aside, of three or more layers, in this case called Suni Nagashi. In general, however, I am of the opinion that the “philosophical knife”, the one good for doing everything in any situation doesn’t exist for anyone.
5. We know that your discovery of the barbecue world is relatively recent. How did you get to us?
Frankly, I do not know. It was a whirlwind of situations: I was engaged for a decade with an Argentinian girl and her father taught me the techniques of traditional asado, based on slow cooking and the rediscovery of minor cuts. When it started to talk about it in Italy, I was practicing some concepts for years and when it happened, suddenly some cuts began to become difficult to find and at crazy prices. I looked around and enquired myself to try to understand the reasons and here I discover the Italian barbecue movement. From there I began to get the first contacts, and then discover that this also had implications in the world of cutlery.
6. Are you inspired by someone or by something in particular in your production? There is a technical reference in the production of Mario Mattia?
I like learning and improving myself. Always. I am registered as an apprentice at American Bladesmith Society, probably the most authoritative body in the branch worldwide, which gathers masters among the best ever, including some legends such as Bob Kramer, Adam Desrosier and Sam Lurquin, figures to which is impossible to not get inspired if you work in this sector.
7. Imagine a world without physical or economic limitations. Which knife would you dream to produce if you had the chance?
It’s a hard question. Probably the most difficult knife to produce is the Damascus Mosaic, in whose blade through the processing and choice of materials are recreated figures, animals or even landscapes often of bucolic nature.
One of the best in this art is an Italian, Moreno Feltrasi who comes to select the raw material according to the design he has to create. Here if I had to decide to try my hand at a personal challenge, I would probably like to try to make a knife of this kind.
If instead we stay in the context that I love most, that of kitchen knives, I think the challenge would be to make Sujihiki, a knife always coming from Japanese culture and designed for some specific processing on fish. The long blade of Sujihiki is concave on one side and convex on the other making it extremely difficult to preserve these conditions by subjecting it to the extreme temperature passages typical of the process.
8. From the time of order how much time passes until the delivery of the finished product? How many hours of work requires the production of a craft knife?
Let’s say that the minimum union required by a simple, small-sized, one-piece artisanal product is about 20 hours even if it depends a lot on the speed of the artisan. Clearly, the higher are the customer’s qualitative needs, above all for what concerns the blade and more heat treatments are requested, thus considerably increasing the times. Let’s say that in my case, most of the requests come to me for a finish of the blade Brut de Forge that takes me less time than others and I therefore attest processing on an average time of 50-60 hours.
9. Yours is an ancient work practiced in modern times. How do you live the evolution in the current world? Are greater the limits imposed by the suffocating competition or the opportunities offered by the increased communication possibilities?
I believe that competition is an important factor and in many ways positive because it helps to skim those who work well from the rest. The downside of the coin is that virtual showcases lend themselves to enhancing appearance rather than substance, a fertile ground for those who want to make their product appear better than it is. From the social and media point of view, one of the great advantages that the ease of communication of modern technologies has brought is the opportunity for comparison and sharing among professionals, which ends up improving the quality of individuals and consequently of the sector as a whole. If we compare ourselves with the American market, we notice that there is a great openness in this sense because they have understood that it brings benefits to everyone. Unfortunately, in Italy we are still behind on this profile. We are still very provincial, jealous of our secrets that we fear can enrich the competitors. We will get there, we need time.
10. Your products naturally represent something different from industrial production, but if you were forced to buy a commercial knife which would you choose? Which for absolute quality and which for quality / price ratio?
I struggle to answer you because what I think is that there is too much qualitative difference between a craft production and an industrial one. Some types of processing are born as artisanal and industrializing them at all costs inevitably involves a qualitative renunciation. Have you ever heard of knives of well-known brands that simply break down due to an accidental fall?
I believe that if I were forced I would opt for a semi-industrial product like a Takeda, which to meet the great demand internally develops the crucial stages of production, outsourcing to third parties those less impacting on the quality of the final product.
11. On which characteristic of your products do you think there is more your signature? What do you think makes the Mario Mattia’s knives stand out the most?
I have no idea :-D. It’s a question you should ask those who buy my knives. Let’s say that I really care about the feedback with my clients, especially after the purchase and the perception that I have is to be able to often hit the target. I think the best feature of my knives is to fully reflect the expectations of who commissioned them to me.
12. What are your plans for the future? How do you see yourself in the next few years?
I would simply like to continue my training path. Next year, I think I can take the American Bladesmith Society exam to move from apprentice to Journeyman Smith. I have no idea how I see myself in the next few years, I am used to living life according to what happens. Let’s say that realizing myself in this sector is certainly one of my goals.
Thanks to Mario Mattia for the time he has dedicated to us and to whom we do our best wishes for his activity Mattia Custom Quality Knives and Tools. You, what kind of knife would you ask for if you had the chance?