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High-end pots that no one would pan

Sunday, October 15, 2000

Tucked into a quiet corner of Canonsburg, around a bend and down a rise, is a park complete with pond, fountain and geese. A short distance from the pond, snug against the hills, are two factory buildings belonging to All-Clad Metalcrafters.

Migrating birds have made the pond a refuge. They stop every year to rest for a while with some hope of handouts from employees having lunch at a few picnic tables on the ridge. Nearby, a bridge fords a stream, where the running water is so clear that it seems to magnify a school of minnows treading water near the bank.

Both the pond and the stream are active.

"We've seen snakes in the stream and fish in the pond, and once a giant snapping turtle walked out of the water," says John Milnthorp. An engineer with All-Clad, Milnthorp describes himself as "a fully Americanized former Yorkshireman and ex-coal miner." An engineer with a mining equipment company, he came to Canonsburg two years ago to assist with bonding metals technology.

Pointing to the pond as he squires me around the property, Milnthorp describes it as "a happy accident."

The late John Ulam, founder of All-Clad, who chose this site for his factory, started out wanting a parking lot. All efforts to level the land resulted in its filling with water.

A pragmatic man, Ulam's solution was "make it a pond." It was another of his inspired decisions.

I knew John Ulam. I liked him enormously. He was a lovely fellow, helpful, handsome, funny and smart. Having found a method for bonding dissimilar metals using heat and pressure, he was able to produce a material useful in the auto industry, airplane manufacture and coin production at the U.S. Mint.

It was Ulam who realized the potential of the process for the making of high-end cooking equipment. It was a market that had received little attention. He was certain that chefs and devoted amateurs would be willing to pay for the excellent heat distribution of aluminum bonded together with the easy-to-clean surface of stainless steel. Out of respect for French culinary tradition, copper sheath with an aluminum center and a stainless interior soon became part of the line.

Though it's getting ahead of this story, All-Clad now produces five-ply construction pots and pans: a stainless-steel cooking surface; a sandwich of aluminum, copper, aluminum; and a stainless-steel exterior. Williams-Sonoma's exclusive right to this expensive line, where a stock pot can cost $350, is about to expire, and devotees may see some Copper Core pots at All-Clad seconds sales Dec. 1 and 2. There is a danger here. Milnthorp points it out. When he brought home one of the beautiful Copper Core pots, with its copper lid and skived-out copper band, his wife, Hilary, put it on the stove, stepped back to take a look and decided it was time to remodel the kitchen.

I can't remember all the circumstances of my first meeting with Ulam 20 years ago. I believe it was when I went to the factory to buy a copper pot. I was new in Pittsburgh. On an early assignment for The Pittsburgh Press, I was sent to a food conference in Honolulu. My daughter had just started high school, and I was nervous about leaving her. My friend Susan Hershenson said she would play mother for the week. So good a friend deserved a reward and, because Susan is a wonderful cook, I thought a big copper pot would be appropriate.

A day after receiving it, she called me. She explained that she had used the pot to make an orange glaze that had, till then, defied her. In the All-Clad pot, it worked. She said she pushed the pot to the back of the stove, put on her hat, got in the car and went to Canonsburg, where she bought one of everything.

She couldn't do that now because, with success, the line expanded exponentially, and the factory no longer has a salesroom. All-Clad confines itself to an exclusive-in-this-area seconds sale twice a year at Crate in the Green Tree Shopping Center; Kitchen Shelf, Westmoreland Mall; and Ladbroke at the Meadows. Thousands of people come to the track looking for substantial discounts. Some of us are obsessive. On visits to New York City, one of my stops is always the housewares department at Macy's or Bloomingdale's. I stand in front of the extensive All-Clad display, examining the merchandise, making my decision about what to buy at the next sale.

Having toured the plant's factory buildings with Miln-thorp and seen the pots being made, I have a new understanding of the product. In full production, the factory uses from 150,000 to 160,000 pounds of raw material every week. Factory hands are busy at big machines, but at each station every step in the process is paused over. Everything being made is under continuous inspection. It's as though this pretty park-like Canonsburg site was a celestial center for producing pots and pans. Such a notion was reinforced when we entered the shipping room. With a wave of his hand, Miln-thorp called it "All-Clad heaven." Ready for delivery, thousands of white boxes were piled high like so many angels ready to take off.

The company is blessed. Sales have increased by 30 percent annually for the last several years. The present staff of 350 people continues to grow. Last year's purchase of the company by Waterford Wedgwood for $110 million bought with it $6 million for use in an aggressive expansion. Up to now, all of All-Clad's energy has gone to satisfying its U.S. markets.

"We haven't touched the world demand for high-end cookware," says Milnthorp.

The one store in all of Europe where All-Clad can currently be had is Harrod's in London.

All-Clad is big. All-Clad is small. For restaurateur and television chef Emeril Lagasse, an entire line called "Emerilware" has been designed. For Chef Chuck Davis down the road from the factory at the Classroom restaurant in Peters, saute pans from the All-Clad line are available for testing.

Does he like them?

You bet.

Hearing this, the pleased Milnthorp turned to me to say, "I don't remember anyone ever saying they liked my mining equipment."

For sale information: 724-745-8300; www.allclad.com.

Creamed Spinach

For cooking in new pans.

1 pound fresh spinach, coarse stems discarded, washed well, drained and chopped coarse, about 8 packed cups
3 tablespoons minced onion
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup heavy cream
Freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

In a large saucepan of boiling salted water, cook spinach 2 minutes, drain in a sieve and, using the back of a spoon, press out as much water as possible

In a skillet, cook onion in butter over moderate heat until softened. Stir in remaining ingredients, and salt to taste. Cook until most of cream is absorbed, about 3 minutes. Makes 2 servings.

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