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Like many eaters, I spent part of my Thanksgiving weekend elbow deep in a sink full of pots and pans soaking in sudsy water. The food-focused fall holidays have a way of forcing home cooks to employ every vessel in the kitchen to get the job done.
Looking down at the panoply of pans I was scrubbing, I realized that most were once my mother’s and recollected how they had traveled with me in moves across the country and overseas. “Why,” I pondered, especially because some are in shambles. You can buy new ones online and have them shipped straight to your door for less than $50!
Even if they have half a century’s worth of crud clinging to them or have a handle that’s barely hanging on, we hold on to these pots and pans because they’re often sentimental and have been passed down through generations. They’re not just receptacles; they’re relics.
Professional chefs—who, yes, also cook at home—have the same inclination. City Paper visited several local chefs to check out their most precious pans. Each one tells a story.
Ris Lacoste grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, as one of seven children. Her father, Rene Lacoste, was a fireman and her mother, Yvonne Lacoste, was a secretary who managed to stretch the family’s budget to cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner for nine people in a tiny galley kitchen.
“To grow up with three hot meals a day, I was blessed,” Ris says. “That’s why I give back because I got so much.”
Mostly it was meat and potatoes. The family would order half a steer from a local slaughterhouse and pay for it in $50 monthly installments. Ris remembers defrosting an old freezer with a hair dryer to make room for all the beef they would make last for months. “When [my mom] paid her last installment, she would order the next steer,” Ris explains.
Yvonne relied on Revere Copper and Brass pots in the 1950s. New Bedford, after all, was home to a plant that produced them until it closed in 2008. Ris’ uncle, Emile Lacoste, worked there his entire career. “I remember going there as a kid and seeing the big fire pits,” she says. “They were melting all these metals.”
The company’s lineage traces back to Paul Revere’s original Canton, Massachusetts, copper rolling mill, founded in 1801. Much later on, in 1938, an employee named James M. Kennedy invented copper-clad cookware that was produced at company headquarters in Rome, New York, and in New Bedford.
When Yvonne died, Ris’ sister, Cathy Lacoste-Hamel, took over the house and disseminated pieces from the collection of so-called Revere Ware. Each of Ris’ six siblings has at least one pot or pan from the set.
She got the double boiler, which is great for cooking things that require indirect heat like melting chocolate for truffles or making hollandaise sauce for a Benedict. “These are the pots of my childhood,” Ris says. “Growing up, food was love.”
The pan that Chef Adam Howard holds dear has a bit of a mysterious background. It belonged to his grandfather on his mother’s side of the family. He describes his grandfather, Howard Smith, as a “country boy” who grew up in deep Alabama.
But World War II disrupted Smith’s bucolic farming lifestyle. The U.S. Army sent him to Germany where he worked as a cook. When the war was over, Smith stuck around for five years. He landed a job cooking in a castle somewhere in central Germany.
Howard doesn’t know much about this fabled castle. “He didn’t really talk about it,” he says. “Everyone just knew it happened. It was that generation, I guess. He wasn’t a big storyteller. He was the quiet hunter type.”
But Smith did hone his cooking skills at the castle and when he left, the family who owned it gave him a cast iron pan that Howard eventually inherited. “It’s really well seasoned—the kind of cast iron you could make an omelette in.”
Seasoning a cast iron pan is a science project that requires time, repetition, and a whole lot of grease. To achieve the desired goal of a non-stick surface, a cast iron pan needs to be coated with oil with a high smoke point and exposed to high heat to kick off a series of chemical reactions, including polymerization.
Howard keeps the pan in the oven so it’s frequently exposed to heat. He mainly uses it for cornbread and breakfast. “It’s been absorbing oils and ingredients over generations,” he says. “There’s something from Stuttgart in there somewhere.”
Robert Curtis, Executive Chef, Hazel
Chef Robert Curtis’ cast iron pan has the look of hardened lava. The inside of the pan is smooth, while the outside has a spiky texture from years of carbon buildup. It’s also has significant heft to it. Curtis inherited it, imperfections and all, from his paternal great-grandmother.
“As far as I’ve known the history of this pan, I’ve seen two things come out of it—fried chicken and cornbread,” Curtis says. “That’s it.”
His father’s side of the family is from Dayton, Ohio. Curtis knew his great-grandmother and remembers her as a quiet woman who loved watching football. Eventually the pan skipped a generation and wound up with Curtis’ father.
“Every Sunday, this thing is filled with fried chicken,” he says. “When football is on there has to be fried chicken.” His dad is a Browns fan.
To acquire the pan, all Curtis had to do was ask to borrow it. “My stepmom was like, ‘Yeah, take it! Hold onto it for a little bit. Don’t worry about bringing it back.’” He thinks she was happy to see it change hands. “She hates the idea of cleaning it. We’ve soaked this thing half a dozen times at their house and this is as good as it gets.”
Today the deep cast iron pan is Curtis’ go-to for one-pot dinners. He’ll cut up root vegetables and onions, place them on the bottom of the pan, and roast a whole chicken on top, for example.
“I love cast iron,” he says. “I love cooking with it. There’s just something about it. When you grab a cast iron pan there’s something rustic or traditional about it.”
Seasoning a cast iron skillet was a new concept for Chef Rock Harper. He bought one at IKEA hoping to rekindle childhood memories of his grandmother’s cooking. “I get home, wash it, and cook in it right away,” he says. “I called my mother and was like, ‘Why is mine different from my grandmother’s?’ I could hear her shaking her head. She’s like, ‘Boy, it ain’t seasoned!’”
Harper’s grandmother, Esther Harris, was from Tappahannock, Virginia. It wasn’t uncommon for the family to wake up to the smell of angel biscuits or fried apples when they were in her company. “What this lady did before 6 a.m. in a day, I can’t do in a week,” Harper says. “She was a phenom in the kitchen and it ran in the family too.”
Eventually, Harper learned to rub his skillet with oil and bake it for hours until it looked and performed more like his grandmother’s. He’s convinced, though, that “care and love” are actual ingredients his grandmother cooked with.
The skillet was one of the first items Harper and his then-girlfriend, now wife, purchased together. “I love to cook and she loves to eat,” he says.
Scott Drewno, Co-Founder, Fried Rice Collective (CHIKO and Anju)
It’s almost assured that people will make bad money decisions in Las Vegas. But Chef Scott Drewno and his then-girlfriend, now wife, Dr. Allison Drewno, might be the exception to that rule.
The high school sweethearts, who’ve been together for nearly three decades, were living in Sin City when they were both 21 years old. Scott began his cooking career there at a Wolfgang Puck restaurant. The young couple was new to the industry and couldn’t get back to the East Coast for Thanksgiving.
“It was our first Thanksgiving that we both had to work,” Scott says. “In Vegas everything is open all of the time … We couldn’t go home and we were both so sad about it.” They set off to Williams-Sonoma and invested in a 10-piece cookware set from All-Clad. It’s not one pan they find sentimental—it’s 10 stainless steel pots, pans, and lids.
They’ve been using them for almost 25 years. “Obviously we cook a lot so there are some dings in them,” Scott says. “They’re not as pretty as they used to be, but that set went from Vegas to New York to here.”
On Sundays the Drewnos like to make pasta. Scott makes the noodles and Allison makes the bolognese, both utilizing the All-Clad set. “They’ll be with us forever,” Scott says. “I always tell people, ‘Spend money on a good set of pans once and you’ll never have to buy them again.’”