I have metal running through my blood.
Four years ago, I founded Finex, a cast iron cookware company in Portland, Oregon. The day we launched, we were the second-largest in America because there was only one other in the country. We make around 100 to 200 skillets a day if we get up early enough in the morning.
I started the company because I couldn't find what I wanted in the world of cookware. I really like comfort food like chilaquiles and things that are crisp-tender: home fries, cornbread, pancakes. However, around the time I started Finex, my wife and I were trying to get pregnant, so she audited our whole lifestyle for anything that wasn't considered healthy.
This meant eventually getting rid of all of our mystery non-stick pans, because there are a lot of rumors and conspiracy theories out there about non-stick pans and health. While I don't know if any of them are true, I do know that bad things start to happen when you heat up non-stick pans beyond 500 degrees, which happens to be the temperature when all the good stuff happens in food, like searing a good steak or getting a good crust on something.
I always say that Finex could have only happened In Portland. It is a wonderful little town because we love eating breakfast here. If you wake up at 1 PM, it is usually still breakfast-y weather outside. There is a lot of support for small, local businesses in the community. I mean, we even have our own salt. The West Coast is good for cast iron cooking in general because we have access to great produce.
One of the things that has always attracted me to cast iron is that it gets better with age. Cast iron gets broken in, it gathers stories. Not a week goes by where someone doesn't come up to me and say, "My sister and I haven't talked for a year after she got my great grandmother's cast iron skillet in the estate sale." They never say that about their great grandmother's stainless steel sauté pan. There is some sort of soul—elemental, earthy—thing about cast iron. It outlasts us. You can pick it up every morning and it's not veneered, it's not enameled, and it's not chrome-plated. It is what it is and yet it performs so damn well every time.
Making something that is useful and outlasts us all is truly fulfilling, especially when it is something that people connect with over food.
I grew up in my dad's metal welding shop. He basically got me out of bed on Saturday mornings kicking and screaming to watch him put a radiator in the car or watch him fix this and that. He never gave me many toys growing up, but I did have full tool chest so I wouldn't have to ever borrow his. I've worked at Boeing and for other metal fabrication workshops where they make parts for aircrafts and trucks. I've seen metal transform into many things and endure.
I love tools. I love a good chef's knife, a good can opener, and there is nothing like a good pair of scissors. The proper tools in life extend your power as a human being.
I've collected cast iron cookware my whole life and some of the pans I have—including one that weighs 50 pounds and another one that is called a triple-flipper and cooks six pancakes at a time—are as gorgeous to me as vintage motorcycles or the craftsmanship behind old guitars.
There was a time when every kitchen in the US had a cast iron skillet in it. You had a stove, a sink, an outhouse, and a cast iron skillet. But then aluminum pans arrived in the 1940s and everybody wanted the new shiny stuff.
When you tell your friends that you want to start a cast iron cookware company, they all will tell you that it is a dumb idea. I Kickstarted my way to the first stages of the business and while it is awesome to wake up one day and magically have $211,000 (I usually have $50), it also hit me that I now owed 4,000 people cast iron cookware in the next 30 days. So I quit my day job, got a landline and gave up my direct deposit by quitting my day job. Fortunately, I've had a few lucky breaks, even after breaking all of the design rules with our eight-sided cast iron pan and putting wound-up springs everywhere, too.
When it comes to a cast iron skillet, there is something beautiful and simple about it. It is a simple and elegant solution for cooking, and it is really forgiving surface to cook on. Making something that is useful and outlasts us all is truly fulfilling, especially when it is something that people connect with over food. I'm not talking about someone DMing you or texting. I'm talking about when people tell you how much better their days are after having some cast iron-baked cornbread.
We age too fast, but when you cook with cast iron, it forces you to live slow and just be patient.
As told to Javier Cabral
Mike Whitehead is the founder of Finex Cast Iron Cookware. He lives in a one-room cabin in Portland, Oregon with his wife and two dogs. He challenges anyone to a hand-to-hand cast iron show and tell contest. For more info visit Finex's website.