COOKING WITH FIRE
We catch up with our old pal Mike Bertelsen of the Cowboy Cauldron Company.
It’s safe to say that there wouldn’t be a Butter Pat Industries without the Cowboy Cauldron Company. And founder Mike Bertelsen is the man to thank, the Huck to our founder’s Finn, igniting his inner fire bug and encouraging turning a cast-iron collecting side hustle into a cookware obsession.
But long before cauldrons, Bertelsen, born in Utah, was a man of many lives: fly fishing guide, law school student, congressional staffer, Senate lobbyist. And it was during the latter that he found himself living directly across the street from George Washington’s Mount Vernon in Fairfax County, Virginia. In the late 1990s, he sighted an old cauldron braiser there and was inspired to scrap together pieces of metal with the help of local craftsmen to build his own. The cauldron became an instant hit among visiting politicos, who soon dubbed themselves the “Cauldron Society.”
Fast forward a decade and Bertelsen found himself back in his home state, having hauled that original Cauldron across the country, where he was now being pestered by childhood friends to build them one as well. Eventually celebrity chef Michael Chiarello of Napa Valley was begging for one, too. Before long, more orders rolled in. Then as now, they were meant to be both beautiful and functional objects, with an eye always toward cooking.
In fact, some customers might have noticed the bottom of our Lilis; the first place that you could buy the very first Butter Pat skillets was through the Cowboy Cauldron Company, hence a logo tribute still molded onto the back of every 14-inch pan.
This spring, we caught up with Mike about growing up in the mountain west, cast-iron cooking in cauldrons, and the primitive allure of a live fire.
Tell us your version of the Cowboy Cauldron and Butter Pat origin story.
Oh, wow. It goes all the way back to the very beginning. I was friends with Keith first, the brother of your founder, Dennis. We knew each other from our 20s in Dewey Beach, which, Jesus Christ, is a long time ago now. Every year, he and his wife would throw a Christmas party, where I would see Dennis, and we’ve been best friends ever since. But the origin story that he tells is only partly correct.
It was 2013 and I had been making cauldrons for about five years at that point. Back then, Dennis was living out on a place called Hog Island on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and doing a lot of canoe paddling. One day, we were out on the river, near this big dock with a big boat on it. I said, ‘Damnit, Dennis, you've been talking to me about doing cast iron now for 10 years, and that guy's got a waaay bigger boat than we have! I want you to get off your ass and get it done.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘You serious?’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’ And that's when he started, basically right after that. Meanwhile, I was trying to run Cowboy Cauldron and had no idea what I was doing. But he was right there with sage advice from the very beginning for us as well.
Founder’s Note: This was right after we broke our grandmother’s pan. But our friend, like all current and former lobbyists, like to tell stories, uh, differently. He actually said, “I don’t wanna canoe to the restaurant, damnit; I want to boat! So get off your…”
Being from Utah, what are your earliest memories of fire?
My dad's family had a lake house in Scofield. It's a little reservoir up in the mountains of central Utah. We would go there all the time, and most trips, we’d make a fire out back. The funny thing is there's very little wood out there. We mostly built sage-brush fires, which as a little kid are great, because they smell fabulous. If you’re a parent, they only last for about five minutes, so very little supervision was required, but we always had fire around.
What was it about fire that hooked you?
I have a really distinct memory of the first time I watched oil burn. I was just completely fascinated by the notion of a liquid that would burn. Then I watched coal burn, shortly after that, and there's just something to me that's really captivating about the notion of combustion writ large. It’s alchemy. You're converting something to something else with heat. People say, ‘Oh, gosh, I can just stare at a fire forever, I don't know why.’ But fire is literally what makes human beings human. We evolved to fire. It’s what gave us a defensible nest, which is what informed our social behavior and societies. And when we sit down to eat at a table, we’re still gathering around in a circle.
Growing up in Utah, did you have cast iron around?
I didn't. My people are Scottish and English and were very poor. Even in the early ’60s, when I was a young child, a good piece of cast iron was still relatively expensive. I didn't see cast iron until I was probably in my mid 20s. And I hated it. Because it sucked. It was sticky. And until I saw good cast iron, which probably wasn't until my 30s, I never used it.
How were you cooking on fire as a kid?
On that lake shore, the fishing was really good. So the first cooking I did was trout, in the fire, on a stick. Then I learned to cook them right in the coals. My grandma sure as hell wasn’t gonna send one of her pans down to the fire. But if you have enough coals, you can drop any kind of protein directly into them. With fish, the skin is what chars, and we’d just peel that off.
How do you build a cooking fire in a cauldron?
The Lincoln log style is the best way to create a big bed of coals, with little ash on them, which is a stable, predictable deliverer of heat. For cocktails, you want a teepee, because as the heat rises, it throws off a lot of light and makes cheerful flames. The hottest part of any fire is the tip of a flame, but as they dance around, it’s hard to determine the temperature of your heat source. That's why you always cook on coals and not live flame.
What do you start a fire with?
I'm laughing because I use a Cowboy Cauldron Company Firestarter. And I created them because most people honestly have no idea how to start a fire. Almost everybody I see still starts with paper, which is a horrible way to start fire. Paper doesn’t burn hot enough to ignite wood. But there's tinder, then there's kindling, and then there's fuel. Tinder is the stuff that, when a match touches it, it catches fire immediately, like dry grass, or what they call squaw wood—tiny little limbs or twigs that are still on the tree, but dead. Kindling is the small stuff that immediately takes the heat from the tinder and starts what you would call fire. And for fuel, we cook on wood—oak, fruit woods, locust. No charcoal briquettes or kerosene. Being a Boy Scout, I love nothing better than a one-match fire.
What’s the difference between cooking on a Cauldron versus, say, a grill?
Cauldrons are participatory, right? I think the fundamental difference between cooking on a cauldron and say cooking on a Big Green Egg or Traeger, is that, basically, those are just ovens. When the lid comes down, you're done, and everybody has to find something else to do. Whereas when a Cauldron's burning, everyone is out there, in a circle, around the fire. Everyone has an opinion, whether solicited or not.
What are some of the go-tos you cook on them?
When I'm hosting for a big party, I will do ribs or brisket, both of which are astonishingly easy when done right. And because I eat a lot of wild game, I do duck and venison, for straightforward, shorter grilling events. Smoked fish suspended over a cauldron is absolutely fabulous.
What ingredients or tools do you always have on hand?
I always have a glass of wine. I always have big spatula or tongs. And to grill meat properly, you only need three things: salt, pepper, and heat.
When do you pull a cast-iron pan into the mix?
Anytime I cook breakfast, it requires a cast-iron pan. I do a lot of garden vegetables, especially at the end of the season. And pizza. You don’t need a dedicated pizza oven. You just need a grill and a good piece of cast iron. Might I suggest the Butter Pat Industries Lili 14" Pan?
How do you take care of a cauldron?
There are three paradigms of long-term cauldron care. The first and by far the favorite is abject neglect. You can't ruin a cauldron in a single lifetime. It's impossible. Dennis has tried. And to date, he has failed. Then you can occasionally coat the outside with something—we sell a wax-oil emulsion called Bear Fat, which helps give that beautiful black patina [Founder’s note: aka good seasoning!] to the outside and protect against rust. Though, for most people, the more burly and primitive a cauldron gets, the more they like them. And then our fancy resorts will periodically repaint them, just to keep them looking super shiny.
Anything we forgot?Just that the great story about Cowboy Cauldron and Butter Pat is two guys who've been friends for 30 years, who combined their passions and friendship to create two companies that basically have the same goal, which is to make people happy. And they fit together like a hand in a glove. And I think that's pretty remarkable.
Read Bertelsen’s Cauldron Pizza recipe in Family Receipts.