When Jackson, an assistant buyer here at Food52, unveiled a textured, deeply blue-green skillet with a leggy handle in our weekly product review I was already intrigued. But when he shared that the carbon steel cookware is hand-forged by a small team called Blanc Creatives in my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, I was seduced. (As was our Shop—it now carries the cookware.)
I know Charlottesville for its surprisingly lively and well-regarded dining scene, for hikes in the neighboring Blue Ridge Mountains, for a university that attracts prominent authors and poets, politicos, and psychologists, for Bodos Bagels. Unbeknownst to me, Charlottesville and its surrounding counties are also home to a skilled blacksmithing community, according to Corry Blanc, founder and owner of Blanc Creatives.
The expansive valleys surrounding the city are classic horse country, and the demand for fences, gates, and the like feeds the need for metalworkers to provide for these farms (and very expensive homes, at that). Add to that a modest but thriving arts scene, a keen interest in all things local and handmade, and a legion of fine dining chefs, and you have a nexus for the success of Blanc Creatives' tough-as-nails, artistic cookware.
Blanc Creatives' saute pans, skillets, and roasters have quickly earned a coveted spot on our shelves—and we don't make room for just any old piece of cookware. Yes, they're a financial investment, but we look at them as in investment in our many years of cooking to come, a piece that will become a cherished part of our table. The lived-in, loved-on roaster that your scattered family members look forward to seeing on the holiday table, just as much as the honey-brown chicken inside.
Corry came to Charlottesville in 2007 from Georgia and worked for Stokes of England, a well-known shop providing architectural metalwork to the likes of the Atlantis Resort, before opening his own shop. Working at local restaurants to pay the bills, he took commissions for small projects like gardening tools and bottle openers.
And then, Corry made a fry pan. A pretty decent fry pan he thought, and he set out to sell it at the Charlottesville City Market (see question in my notes). Alas, that first Saturday he didn't sell a single pan. But not to be discouraged, he instead offered the pans to his chef friends, pinning his hopes on word of mouth. Slowly, but steadily, good feedback began to roll in and shortly thereafter he was producing 12 to 15 pans a week, with the help of one assistant. Corry's first order came from chef Tomas Rahal, the owner of the eternally popular Mas restaurant, and somewhat of a Charlottesville institution. Tomas remains one of Blanc Creatives' best customers, always one of the first to order any new pieces available.
Blanc Creatives' big break came in 2015, when they won the overall prize in the annual Garden & Gun Made in the South Awards, which seeks out the best Southern-made products in home, food, style, crafts, outdoor, and drink. From there, it was a hop, skip, and a jump to the kitchens of fine dining restaurants all over the U.S.—Dan Barber's Blue Hill and tasting menu darling Contra in New York City, just to name a few.
Corry and his team graciously allowed me to crash a day of their work to visit (and poke around) the small garage Blanc Creatives call home. Corry and I sat perched on stools in a corner of the workshop as the business of hammering and heating ticked on a few feet to the left.
Behind two roll-down doors, a team of ten hand-produces 50 pieces of the cookware a week, "80 if we're really gunning." Corry walked me through the entire process, snaking and looping around each station like a football playbook.
Each carbon steel pan begins as a laser cut disc, sourced from nearby Richmond and sent protected with a layer of iron oxide. Each disc comes cut to a specific size, depending on the pan it will eventually become (12-inch skillet? 9-inch roaster? Time will tell).
The discs are transferred to a hydraulic press, where they sit on a metal ring perfectly sized to suit each pan. A cylindrical press lowers down and applies 15 tons of pressure onto the disc pushing its center down to create the basic shape, a flat bottom with curved sides.
The crude beginning of the pan is handed off to the blacksmith manning the forge. The pan is carefully placed inside the ferociously hot mouth of the oven until it pulses a glowing, living red. The iron oxide layer is burned off in this process.
The pan is now malleable enough so yet another blacksmith can hammer the heck out of it on the anvil, shaping the sides to give each the distinctive look of a Blanc Creatives skillet, saucier, or roaster, and, of course, reveal its own unique variations.
Next stop: the most dangerous tool in the Shop. An intimidating porcupine-like wire brush is used to burnish, or finish, the edges of the pan. Sparks encouraged.
Giving the pan its handle is next on the list. Each is handle is hand-hammered so it perfectly curves around the side of each pan until it lines up precisely. Holes are drilled in. The rivets are placed inside. As opposed to the earlier hammering that took place right out of the forge, this entire process is done "cold" hammered: working with the steel at room temperature. The metal warms up with each blow (hello middle school science!) but gets nowhere near as hot as the post-forge action.
From there, the pan is given a blast of sand in the appropriately-named sand blasting cabinet, removing mill scale (flakes on the steel as a result of the hot forging) and small surface imperfections. It goes back in the hands of the team, who give the surface a final, exacting polish with the wire-brush for a smooth finish.
This is a sensitive time for the pans, because the iron oxide has all been burnished off and they are left without any protection from moisture, oxygen, and rusting. They must go back in a kiln (this can happen in large batches) and baked at high heat for another forty minutes. Heat reacts with the steel to regenerate the layer of iron oxide that has since been removed from the initial disc. This reaction gives the pans their signature blue-ish, green-ish, black-ish shade.
Finally, the pans get a rub down with coconut oil while the pans are still hot—the oil seeps into the pores while it cools and gives it a nice pre-seasoned nonstick.
There you have it: the pans are ready to be on their way to your next great meal.
Carbon steel cooks very similarly to cast iron. It retains heat well, gets more nonstick each time you use it, and develops its own characteristic patina over time.
But Corry points out a few key differences between cast iron and carbon steel:
- Carbon steel is more lightweight than cast iron, so you won't feel the need to do bicep curls in order to handle it.
- Carbon steel is typically slicker than traditional, rougher cast iron (although not in the case of our silky smooth Smithey pan) for a nonstick surface with even more give.
- Iron is very brittle, which is why cast iron pans are made as one single piece. The metal can't accommodate hammering, bending, or stretching, and the handle is shorter to prevent breakage and cracking. And because the handle is a contiguous part of the pan, it picks up the heat of the cooktop quickly for a more burn-prone cooking experience. Carbon steel, on the other hand, is malleable enough to support a two-piece design, allowing for a slight air pocket between handle and pan, resulting in a cooler handle. Blanc Creatives' handle is long and lithe, so you can steer clear of hot flames, and even have easier access to back burner cooking.
And why these carbon steel pans? For one, look at them. Almost jewel-like in color, each pan bears the exacting hits of a metalworkers hammer leaving a dappled texture. The handles are like a ballet dancer's legs, swooping and graceful but incredibly strong. From the thinned, delicate rim, to the arched opening the riveted handle creates, every corner and curve of the pans have received the concentrated, earnest attention of a team of artists' eyes and hands.
Take a cue from the chefs who've adopted these beauties as part of their cookware cabal, who use it as a back-of-the-house to front-of-the-house piece. Imagine delivering a rosemary-perfumed leg of lamb to your family table in the roaster: It's a stop-in-your-tracks piece of art, rustic charm married with rugged utility.
All images by author unless otherwise noted.