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Now reading Profile in Obsession: Mike Whitehead

Profile in Obsession: Mike Whitehead

The cast-iron enthusiast behind the cookware company FINEX.

Founder
FINEX Cast-Iron Cookware Company
Portland, Oregon
Age: 47

Some things that forty-seven-year-old, six-foot-five Mike Whitehead has collected over the years: old beer cans, mid-century toasters and lighting, mailboxes, vintage Airstream parts, old woodstoves and electric ranges, pennies, stamps, and cast-iron pans. Having grown up in his British dad’s welding shop in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Whitehead professes to be a “metalhead” most comfortable in large machine shops. He’s worked in his fair share of them, including stints at Boeing and Freightliner Trucks. In 2012, Whitehead founded FINEX Cast-Iron Cookware Company in Portland, Oregon, one of a small handful of companies making cast-iron cookware in the U.S.

FINEX headquarters is a four-thousand-square-foot former machine shop in industrial Northwest Portland, originally built in 1945. It’s just up the road from the Oregon Ballet’s set shop, a proximity that comes in handy when FINEX needs a forklift or a little help building a trade-show display. 

Cast iron’s more than an obsession. I love the idea that you’re making something that gets better with time and collects stories. I love that people connect with it as something that ages more slowly than them and something that satisfies that need for inherent simplicity. I think that as much as we love our complex iPhones and smart apps and all of that, we have this need for really elegant design and simple things that are more than the sum of their parts. That’s why a simple thing such as cast iron can blow us away and make us think, Oh my gosh, why did we stop doing this? It’s not hard to love cast iron—it’s like loving cheese. Even people who are lactose intolerant still love it. I’d love to meet the person who invented cheese and see what they are working on now.

Finex

I started FINEX as a violent reaction against mystery-polymer, non-stick cookware surfaces, made in secret chemical lab facilities. I wanted to know what was in my food, what it was cooked in, and understand where it was coming from. My wife was part of that. She wanted to get back to basics, so she threw out a lot of my Teflon and I did what any guy would do: I bought some more and hid it. And then she found that, and I thought, Okay, what’s the deal with this?

I started looking at all the cast-iron cookware out there, the modern stuff that I could drive down to the corner and buy, and I wasn’t happy with it. I started going on eBay and Etsy and I did some damage buying Griswolds and Wagners, and all of this beautiful 1920s and ’30s cast-iron cookware. It was $250, $350, $450 for a good twelve- or fourteen-inch diameter, smooth, polished skillet that wasn’t rusted or warped or pitted or cracked or in need of extensive restoration. And I’d wonder: Why are fifty-nine people bidding against me on eBay? What’s up with that?

When I started FINEX, I studied the design of both modern and cast-iron skillets from the last century, as well as the best old steel pans from the 1800s. I seasoned and re-seasoned and cooked in them all. I cut them up and measured their thicknesses and computer-drafted some of my favorite vintage skillets to analyze wall thicknesses. We sanded and ground and machined modern skillets to see how to repeatedly get their cook surfaces smoother. We found that smoother cook surfaces require less maintenance to keep seasoned and clean, because they don’t require so much oil for cooking and they release food easier.

My mission with cast iron is to explain that it’s great stuff and lasts forever. Cooking on it versus a polymer cook surface is like wearing denim versus polyester or real leather versus pleather or Naugahyde. It passes the test of time.

Many smarty-pants engineering minds have brought FINEX to fruition, and each piece is generally a pound or so lighter than the equivalent modern or not-so-modern cast-iron pan. They are also incredibly smooth—right out of the box you can pour a teaspoon of olive oil and then flip an egg on it.

FINEX-No.10-Grill-Pan

FINEX is really a story of a guy not being able to find what he wanted and setting out to make it, and then getting progressively obsessed with it. I worked on FINEX an hour a day for a year, and then three hours a day, and then five hours a day, and then twenty hours a day. I kept asking people to talk me out of it, but I think it was a decent idea at a decent time. There weren’t too many other cast-iron cookware companies in America. The day we launched, in 2012, we were one of two.

The sad thing about the American cast-iron business is that it’s mostly gone to China. Very few are stateside. Even now, you’ll find a foundry, and you’ll call them, and they say, Well, we’re just an office, we send everything to China. Keeping the supply chain here has been very difficult. Nobody’s pouring gray iron in Oregon. It’s labor intensive, it’s expensive, and it has some environmental impact.

We’ve found a very small handful of foundries that pour for us, but it’s only because they love cast-iron cookware. Once they realized how hard it was to bring it back, they were already hooked.

 The pieces are rough-sand cast in the U.S. at small West Coast and Midwest foundries—cast-iron cookware is made by pouring molten iron into individual molds made of compressed sand. They still have the texture of that sand when removed. Then they’re tumbled in small, seven-skillet batches for a vibratory polish in a large rock tumbler; assembled to their coiled handles; seasoned with oil; and baked at 400 degrees in a commercial oven in the shop before being shipped out.

These days, although FINEX takes up a majority of Whitehead’s time, he still makes room for his other hobbies.

I mean I get obsessed with stuff, right? I guess you could say I’m a sub-competitive sunflower grower. The confines of my competitiveness rarely exceed my backyard, which is small and gets a lot of sun. To get mine really tall I mostly just start them early. I’m up to eight- and nine-foot giant sunflowers, sometimes ten-footers. I collect the best seeds from the previous year, dry them, and try not to let them get moldy. I do some hybridization studies, but mostly I’m just winnowing out the weakest starts. It’s a relatively new obsession.

Sunflowers are a huge cash crop from a sunflower-oil perspective, so there isn’t as much of a competitive angle as there is with pumpkins. It’s still there, though, and you have to build a tower to support that twenty-five-foot sunflower because, you know, they tip over, the wind knocks them over. They’re goofy and fun and I like large, goofy, fun plants.

Giant-Voodoo-Lily-Tuber

Like voodoo lilies. They’re big and tall and smell like rotting flesh. They attract flies with the stink and that’s how they cross-pollinate. They’re from Southeast Asia and they’re absolutely beautiful. Once the flower blooms, you want to throw a garbage bag over it though because it smells so bad. It’s such a beautiful flower though—one gigantic, exuberant, all-in flower. 

I honestly don’t remember how I came across them, but it was probably from spending too much time on the Internet looking at exotic plants. I’ve also grown brain cactuses, which are called Mammillaria elongata “Monstrosus”. There are a lot of funky succulents out there. I once tried to grow the biggest jade plant I could. In Baja, California, jade plants are trees, but here they’re these little terrarium plants.

When I worked at Boeing I got in with a bunch of giant-pumpkin growers at the Pacific Giant Vegetable Growers association. Oregon is actually on the map for competitive pumpkin-growing, and growers in Canby and Molalla have produced some record-winning pumpkins. It’s a lot of work protecting it from rats alone. And you have to keep them from getting sunburned, because if the skin gets too tough, they don’t expand at the correct rate. They build these wooden pallets to put the pumpkins on so that they can breathe, or sometimes they put together some sort of a net structure, almost like a hammock, and build a sunshade over it. A lot of these guys don’t even go on vacation in the summer because they’re constantly checking on their pumpkins. The association also has an annual regatta where they carve out these enormous pumpkins and race them as boats. They put motors on them and get them all rigged up, you know, stuff twelve-year-olds would do.

They’re awesome. I love eccentric people. Love them. I hope to be one myself someday.Giant-Pumpkin-Regatta