Made in: Charlottesville, VA
Like a lot of Southerners, Corry Blanc learned to cook with a cast-iron skillet. Growing up in Dawsonville, Georgia, he spent a lot of time in his grandmother’s kitchen, where there was always one close at hand. But as he got older and worked a few stints in restaurants, he noticed a different kind of metal cookware being pressed into service: carbon steel.
Similar to cast iron, carbon steel is excellent at holding heat, and it is also nonstick when properly seasoned. But it is lighter and smoother than its better-known cousin, and pans made from it tend to have sloped, not vertical, sides, which is ideal for jobs that require a lot of movement in the pan (think browning meat, sautéing vegetables, and flipping eggs).
Though popular overseas, where it is the stuff of woks and crepe pans, carbon steel isn’t as well known outside restaurant kitchens in this country. But Blanc, now a skilled blacksmith in Charlottesville, Virginia, has found that home cooks appreciate the pans’ slim profile and hardworking durability. “A lot of my customers are people who grew up using cast iron,” he says. “You take care of the pans pretty much the same way. The difference is, if you drop carbon steel, it won’t break.”
Rather than pouring metal into a mold, Blanc makes his skillets and cassole pans by hand. Each one starts with a one-eighth-inch-thick piece of steel, which he forces into a crude shape using a hydraulic press and then hammers into its final form before adding a curved handle. In the case of the skillet, the bend makes for a comfortable grip you don’t always find on cast-iron equivalents. Each piece takes five or six hours, and he repeats the process up to thirty times each week with the help of a team of fellow metalsmiths. It’s time-consuming work, but Blanc is used to that. “I was an art kid through high school,” he says. “I spent a lot of time making stuff.”
Blanc discovered metalsmithing shortly after graduating, when he took a job at an uncle’s metal fabrication business, and later apprenticed under a blacksmith before going out on his own in 2009. He made his first skillet for fun while working on furniture and other projects for clients. It sat in his kitchen until he used it to decorate his stand at a holiday market, and a stream of customers asked to buy it. So he decided to put his rough design to the test. “A lot of my friends are chefs and restaurant owners,” he says. “I asked if they’d try my skillets and give me feedback.”
Soon, he had a skillet that restaurants all over Charlottesville—from the farm-centric Brookville Restaurant to the rustic Italian Tavola to the Spanish favorite Mas Tapas—are now snapping up in multiples.“We use them for searing meats and some seafoods,” says Mas Tapas chef-owner Tomas Rahal. “We’ll even put them in the brick oven at seven hundred, eight hundred degrees.”
But Blanc’s carbon-steel creations are more than just functional. He is an artist, after all, much like the culinary craftspeople who made the vintage iron cookware that now sells for hundreds and even thousands online to collectors. “One of the guys who works with me says that we make twenty-first-century antiques,” Blanc says. “We’re hoping that when people buy our stuff, it isn’t a novelty or a throwaway. If it’s taken care of, it’s something they can pass on to their grandchildren.” Or vice versa: This holiday season, Blanc has just the gift in mind for his grandmother.
Price: From $150
Home Category Runners-Up
Product: Wooden floor tiles
Made in: Charleston, SC
When the decorative artist Sally Bennett began renovating her house in Charleston, she wanted the foyer to have the big impact of hand-painted floors. But back surgery and young children left her neither the ability nor the time to crawl around on hands and knees with a paintbrush. She considered cement tiles but quickly discarded the idea. “I just love the walked-on look of old painted wood,” Bennett says. So she came up with an idea that merged the ease of tiles with the warmth of old-fashioned decorated floors. Today, Bennett still hand paints each original design before it is digitally printed onto twelve-by-twelve-inch tongue-and-groove tiles made with sustainably sourced Alabama lumber. You don’t even have to use them on the floor: A prominent country star just installed a wall of them in his tour bus.
Product: Kitchen knives
Made in: Charlotte, NC
A horse trainer turned bladesmith, Steve Watkins believes that like a champion jumper or prizewinning racehorse, a good kitchen knife must have both style and strength. “I want my knives to be an extension of your hand,” he says. “Each one should feel great but also be shaped so that it does its job perfectly every time.” He makes his Ironman Forge blades of carbon steel, works them by hand until they’re scalpel sharp, and builds the handles from bird’s-eye and curly maple that’s been treated to prevent cracking. The nine-inch chef de cuisine knife (pictured above) is one of Watkins’s favorite styles because it enables both home cooks and professionals to tackle just about any task, from breaking down meat to chopping veggies. But if you want a custom cooking tool, just ask. Watkins will happily pull out his sketch pad.
FERN AND ROBY
Product: Sound system
Made in: Richmond, VA
In our digital music world, Christopher Hildebrand thinks there’s a lot to be said for the crackle and pop of vinyl records. “I’ve always been a music guy,” the industrial designer says. “And I started realizing how flat recordings sound on MP3s.” So when his colleague James O’Neil, the fourth-generation owner of Richmond’s historic O.K. Foundry, suggested building a turntable, Hildebrand didn’t hesitate. They spent three years on the design and partnered with a pair of veteran audio engineers to perfect the sound quality. “Without them, the turntable would be just a really pretty, kinetic sculpture,” Hildebrand says. But with a vibration-dampening cast-iron plinth, a solid bronze platter, reclaimed-heart-pine speakers, and a custom amplifier, each made-to-order system sounds as soulful as it looks.