Just as you would use the utmost care to pick the finest ingredients to cook a dish with love for family and friends, what you cook it in is just as important -- just ask Mike Whitehead, founder and chief creative officer of FINEX Cast Iron Cookware.
The Portland, Oregon-based cast iron cookware company makes premium cast iron skillets and grill pans, whose unique designs have garnered attention from top chefs, as well as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, for being as beautiful as they are functional.
In 2012, Whitehead and his wife were growing tired of using the same old, mass-produced cookware made of unidentified metals and plastics. “I wanted to ditch our mystery polymer non-stick pans for smooth, healthy non-stick cast iron, and I just couldn’t find what I wanted: ultra-smooth fine quality American cast iron cookware like they used to make,” Whitehead explained. “Then we did two successful Kickstarter campaigns and grew into a small team of perfectionists dedicated to making heirloom quality cast iron cookware.”
Growing up in Florida, Whitehead’s inspiration in founding FINEX came from a childhood spent in the Sunshine State amongst alligators, orange groves and bass fishing, and tinkering in his dad’s welding and metal fabrication shop. “You could say I have iron in my blood,” he joked.
“I’ve spent many hours air boating on Lake Okeechobee, canoeing the Suwannee River down from Georgia and hiking the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina and Tennessee. I believe I’ve cooked and eaten almost everything in the South. My stomach just seems to have more room when I’m down there.”
Whitehead said he’s also deeply inspired by the creative people he’s surrounded by in Portland “who take do-it-yourself to the extreme,” as well as vintage American cookware, old tools, lighting, automotive design, mid-century appliances, fine carpentry, leather boots and watches.
“I fall for anything that gets better with age and has an honest shot at outlasting the owner’s expectations,” Whitehead explained. “To me, it’s worth the hassle. I’d like to meet the guy who invented planned obsolescence – it wouldn’t be a polite conversation.”
Whitehead and his team are committed to the idea of an American-made product, so finding suppliers who can support their needs is one of the most challenging obstacles. “The manufacturing ‘ecosystem’ in the United States simply isn’t what it once was. We’ve had to get very creative and, in many cases, develop our own capabilities because they just aren’t here,” he said, proudly sharing that each piece FINEX sells passes through 12 pairs of hands before it gets to your kitchen. “In order to maintain impeccable quality control we source and manufacture everything we can as close to here as possible.”
Perfecting cast iron cookware
Making cast iron cookware is a complex process. Typical cast iron skillets have rough, sand-textured cooking surfaces and the handles get so hot that kitchen burns are frequent. Whitehead and his team have spent years perfecting the art of creating premium cast iron cookware that is both functional and beautiful.
“FINEX features an ultra-smooth, machine-polished cooking surface that releases food easily and cleans up quickly,” Whitehead said. “It’s the closest thing you will find to a non-stick surface once you begin using it. We cast our rough sand castings that we start with at the few small American iron foundries left that can handle custom orders and meet our quality requirements,” he said of the process, “then we heat, treat, grind, machine, tumble, polish, season and assemble the finished product in Portland. We also custom-wind our Speed Cool spring handles and machine our brass end caps and lid knobs, and polish them here.” The ergonomic handles are inspired by antique wood stoves and are made to stay cool longer, so there’s no need for oven mitts when lifting tonight’s Brunswick stew from atop the burner.
“Our new product roadmap is full, but we are prone to obsession with anything kitchen-related,” said Whitehead. “I’m lucky to be able to surround myself with shelves of inspiring vintage kitchenware and design examples. I love working with metal the way carpenters love working with wood. There is something special about cast iron. In a world moving faster and faster it’s good to have something that lasts.”