Driving to Blanc Creatives, a producer of hand-crafted cookware and kitchen tools, you’re sure you’re lost when the GPS leads you down a bumpy side street in Charlottesville’s Belmont neighborhood and into the middle of a large parking lot. Then you hear the jarring, rhythmic clanging of hammers striking metal and follow the sound to one of several garages that house the company, established in 2011 by blacksmith Corry Blanc. Inside, artisans craft hand-forged, carbon-steel skillets of such remarkable quality that, when they were submitted for consideration for Garden & Gun’s 2015 Made in the South Awards, they earned Blanc Creatives the top prize.
Watching the nine-, 11- and 13-inch skillets (or two-handled roasters) in production mesmerizes. A hydraulic press molds sheets of carbon steel into rough skillet forms, which are forged, hammered into more precise shapes on an anvil and pressed again. After handles are attached, the pans are sandblasted, polished by wire brush, kiln-fired to make them rust-resistant and seasoned with coconut oil to a blue-black shine.
Blanc, 35, grew up in Dawsonville, Georgia, where spending time with his grandfathers ignited two passions that drive him today: metalworking and the culinary world.
“One grandfather had a metal shop in his house where he built hot rods and worked on big trucks. The smells and sparks intrigued me,” Blanc explains. “The other was a French Cajun from New Orleans who had owned restaurants and loved to cook, especially meat he raised himself. One week there’d be a hutch full of rabbits, the next a big family barbecue.”
Blanc recalls that in high school he was “the art kid.” An inspiring teacher recognized and nurtured his creative talent and planted the idea that it was possible to make a living as an artist. After high school, Blanc wound up working for his uncle’s welding and fabrication studio through 2007, overseeing the production of handrails during Atlanta’s housing boom. When his then-girlfriend got accepted to UVA, Blanc followed her to Charlottesville, where he found work at Stokes of England, a blacksmithing company. “That’s where I first heated metal,” he says. “It’s similar to clay in the way it can be moved.” He was hooked.
After honing his craft and saving money for a year, Blanc set up his own high-end metalworks with a homemade, coal-fired forge and a second-hand anvil—just in time for the economic downturn of 2008. “I split up with my girlfriend, too,” he says. “So, no money, no girl and no work.”
To make ends meet, he worked in the restaurant business, bartending, waiting tables and cooking for a caterer. On the side, he took on metalwork commissions, growing that business into Blanc Creatives. By 2012, catering was the side gig and metalwork had become Blanc’s main source of income.
During lulls between commissions, he started making cooking tools to sell at the Charlottesville City Market. He also brought along one prototype skillet. Though shoppers expressed interest in the pan, when he produced and brought a dozen of them to market, they didn’t sell. So he gave them to chefs around Charlottesville and asked for feedback, making adjustments to the slope of the pans’ sides and the handle lengths. Tomas Rahal, chef, and owner of Mas Tapas, bought six and spread the word about their quality. Sales began to pick up and Blanc hired a full-time assistant, cranking out around 15 pans a week. He also hired Apple alum Keith Freeman, who, as director of business and marketing, created a sophisticated website and online store using the best e-commerce practices. To make it more functional, he incorporated major components of an E-commerce website in it.
After the Garden & Gun prize, the website blew up with orders. “We took every order, but it took nine months to fill them,” says Blanc. He bought bigger tools and hired more people; the staff currently numbers 10 full-time employees and a couple of part-timers who produce 50 to 60 pans a week or as many as 90 when in high gear. Noted chefs such as Ludo Lefebvre, Dan Barber and James Kent are fans.
Once a customer buys a pan, it will likely last forever—so the future of Blanc’s business will depend on expanding his line. His offerings now include copper skillets, metal utensils and wood products such as charcuterie boards, spatulas and spoons. “The pan world built Blanc Creatives,” reflects its owner, “but it’s my job to keep it fed.”
Blanc Creatives products can be purchased by appointment on site (735 Walnut Street, Charlottesville) or online at blanccreatives.com. A selection is also available at food52.com and bluehillmarket.com.