"I'm looking for the guy in charge,” is a common statement flung at Michelle Dietz. To which she replies with grace and humor, “You’re looking at her.”
Adorned with cocktail fork earrings, a bangle made from a dessert fork, a colorful garden gnome pendant and safety goggles tucked underneath long red hair, Dietz admits she’s not who you might expect to find at the 36-inch grinding wheel, sending sparks flying.
Dietz is the new owner of Madison’s Wisconsin Cutlery and Kitchen Supply store, known for its expert knife sharpening, top-brand culinary items and knife-skills classes. Tucked among upscale stores in the Shorewood Shopping Center, such as Penzeys Spices, Vom Fass and Conscious Carnivore, it is an oasis for professional chefs and novice and serious home cooks alike.
Founder and original owner Bill Peterson retired from the Shorewood neighborhood store last year and sold the business to Dietz, an employee since 2011. On the first April morning of 2016, in an apparently seamless and quiet transition, Dietz opened the doors to her shop.
Dietz is patient and gentle with her customers. She knows it will take time for some to get used to the idea that she’s the woman handling their beloved blades in a typically, historically male-dominated role.
Knife sharpening is an art and a talent she cultivated throughout her years as Peterson’s apprentice. It’s an awesome responsibility in which she handles items considered sacred objects to many. “[These items are] someone’s grandmother’s sewing scissors, the knife your grandfather used to carve the turkey at Thanksgiving for generations, your beloved uncle’s hunting knife,” Dietz says. “It’s an emotionally fraught territory, this place.”
It’s also a physically dangerous territory for those uninitiated. In her black apron with bits of garlic in the pockets leftover from last night’s knife-skills class, Dietz says she really, really doesn’t want you to bleed. Even larger than the passion and respect she pours into her craft is perhaps her genuine concern that her customers don’t lose a finger on the cutting board. Her seriousness for safety pairs harmoniously with her big, contagious laugh as she attempts to assuage a customer’s anxiety over chopping, dicing and chiffonading, “It’s supposed to be fun!”
Don’t expect to find a cure for your culinary addiction in her store. Dietz, along with her three employees—two of whom are professionally trained chefs and another who is a talented home cook—refer to themselves as “professional enablers.” She states without apology that their purpose is to help the cook indulge in this comestible world, one with all the sparkle and allure of a candy shop.
A native of North Dakota, Dietz is a hunter and owns two bird dogs. For her, pheasant hunting with her husband and friends is a communal experience—the act of walking in the field alongside others to avoid accidents, or, as she humorously puts it, to make sure no one gets “Dick Cheney-ed.” After breasting out the birds, she’ll make “a mean curry”—from a golden raisin sausage she prepares from the thighs.
She is an adventurous cook, self-taught by “trial and error,” and says, “I’ve made some glorious mistakes!” She has created dishes from beef tongue, a supple pork broth from hogs’ heads she gets from her Conscious Carnivore neighbor (and assures all eyeraisers it’s “a really good thing”) and a deer heart.
The heart was something her huntsman husband brought to her “bloody in a bag,” asking if she could do something with it. Terrified at first and feeling “like the Evil Queen in Snow White,” Dietz prepared
it as a roulade, filling it with pancetta, mirepoix, herbs and bread crumbs before searing it in her pressure cooker, then braising it in homemade pork broth. What she described as “soft with the essence of the deer, meaty, elegant and absolutely earthy” has now become a traditional dish in her household.
Returning to the pressure cooker for a moment, Dietz is a big fan of the popular, top-selling contraption that, she explains with you-won’t-believe-it enthusiasm, sears, sautés and cooks just about anything in a third of the time it would take in a Dutch oven. It’s a lot different and so much safer today than the one your grandmother had. With a lid that locks securely into place and then double-locks, allowing steam to escape gently if it begins to get too hot, this is one of three kitchen items (a good chef’s knife aside) that Dietz won’t live without.
Another essential item: a pan that can take the heat (and evenly distribute it, too.) Heavy-bottomed, whether it be cast iron, carbon or stainless steel, is what you want to use at temperatures above medium-high heat. All types require the same loving care and proper seasoning. Non-stick, she explains, is not meant for high heat. It won’t do for browning or sauteing—keep it around to gently cook eggs.
Finally, because the No. 1 tool in any cook’s repertoire is an 8- to 10-inch chef’s knife, a close second would be the paring knife. Any cook with these two knives in their culinary tool box is, according to Dietz, “mostly there.” She prefers a 5 1/4-inch MAC Knife—a Japanese knife with functional characteristics she says most chefs come to prefer.
If you wish to step up your culinary game or would just like to talk shop, stop in and be sure to ask for Dietz, the woman in charge.