Will Copenhaver on the Dutch oven that ignited his passion for cast iron, why food tastes better when prepared in quality cookware, and how Smithey’s culture of craftsmanship is forging a new tradition in American cast iron right here in Charleston.
How long have you been with Smithey?
I'm coming up on two years in July.
You have a background working in the world of premium cast iron. What drew you to both the industry in general and to Smithey in particular?
A lot of things, really. I started my career in the apparel industry up in New York City, where I was surrounded by disposable products. That's sort of the nature of the fashion world—you design and sell seasonal items that are meant to go into a store and capture someone's eye within 4 to 8 weeks and, when the season is over, the product gets discounted and everyone moves on to the next. As time went on, I increasingly knew I wanted to be a part of a more intentional and permanent way of manufacturing and thinking about the goods we make and sell. I started thinking about what would be meaningful for me in my career and reflecting on the things I truly valued, which really came down to a focus on products that were meant to last, that had a
story behind them, and that were crafted by passionate people. Around that same time, I got married and my wife and I received a very nice Dutch oven from a French cookware brand for a wedding present, which sat on the one burner we had in our very tiny, 500-square-foot apartment in Manhattan where I could see it everyday. When we moved to Charleston, our first child was on the way and I took a job working with that premium cast iron company and that’s where my career in this world really took off.
And how did you get from there to Smithey? What led you from that initial foray into the cast iron industry to moving to a smaller brand and really staking your claim in this world of craft cookware?
You know, on the most fundamental level, I was drawn to Smithey because it represents and embodies the tradition of American cast iron in a really pure yet really modern way that no other premium cast iron brand I’ve encountered does. But Smithey is also about so much more than just skillet and cookware. It’s about a legacy of thoughtful cooking and personal connections and craftsmanship that are hard to find these days. What we eat is about so much more than food, right? Our friend, the chef and cookbook author Michael Ruhlman, always says that cooking is what makes humans human, that our ability to add fire to protein offered the necessary nourishment to help our brains expand (literally!) and our societies develop. Breaking bread together, sharing a meal together, those communal moments around food are essential, and what you prepare it in should reflect that level of importance and thoughtfulness, too. And so all of those elements together really resonated with me as I was contemplating my own path within the cookware space.
Sounds like you take a lot of pride in your work?
I do. Definitely. That’s the point, right? You have to have pride in the products you make, in the people you work with, and in the way you’re sharing that work and the message with your customers and the community of chefs and collaborators who put their trust in what you’re doing. And certainly in the world of cast iron—and carbon steel, too—the stakes are even higher.
There's an amazing tradition in American cast iron that resonates with people from all backgrounds and walks of life. Skillets and pans, Dutch ovens—these have been a core part of the American experience for a hundred-plus years. Over time, industrial techniques and the quest for cheaper materials and methods have given rise to mass-produced cookware that was pretty popular for awhile, but the quality of well-made cast iron and carbon steel cookware continues to set brands like Smithey apart and the popularity of our products speaks to the hunger people have for those handmade, heirloom quality pieces that their grandparents and great-grandparents would have had. That’s certainly what drew me to what Isaac was doing here at Smithey.
Charleston has a long and revered history of blacksmithing. Do you think Smithey’s location lends another layer of craftsmanship and expertise to the final products in your collection?
Without a doubt. When I first heard someone was making truly superlative small-batch cast iron in Charleston, I was floored...but then, it made a lot of sense. Blacksmiths like the ones we work with have been making a living in Charleston for centuries, and people here have deep and fond memories of their grandmothers cooking fried chicken on the stove or quail in the field in a well-loved, perfectly seasoned skillet. I love the idea that we are carrying on that tradition in a modern way because there are very few things that any of us use today that are nearly identical or similar in form to what our ancestors were using 100 years ago. Listen, my grandmother had a skillet that I wish I’d inherit but, as I’m one of a dozen grandchildren, I know I never will. For everyone out there like me, I’m proud to say that Smithey is filling in that gap with heirloom-quality pieces for the next generation.