Chow Town

What Food Network star Tyler Florence was doing in Kansas

Food Network star Tyler Florence stands before a machine that applies 750 tons of pressure to shape his new line of Vita Craft cookware.
Food Network star Tyler Florence stands before a machine that applies 750 tons of pressure to shape his new line of Vita Craft cookware. jsilva@kcstar.com

Food Network chef Tyler Florence’s lips shape words, but they are barely audible above the din of a machine applying 750 tons of pressure to shape a Vita Craft saute pan.

“This is what American craftsmanship looks like,” Florence says, raising his voice in an effort to be heard by a handful of the 200 community members and food lovers who have been given safety goggles, ear plugs and a map of the factory floor.

Vita Craft’s open house tour — held earlier this week to mark the debut of the chef’s line of premium cookware — put a decades-old factory at 11100 58th St. in Shawnee in the culinary spotlight.

Vita Craft is betting the celebrity chef’s endorsement can reinvigorate its brand: Florence will use the cookware on his TV shows, including the popular “Food Truck Race” and the new “Tyler Florence Test Kitchen,” set to debut in 2017. The cookware also will be used in kitchens at Wayfare Tavern, his popular restaurant in San Francisco.

Vita Craft has been making premium-quality stainless-steel pots and pans in the United States since 1939. The cookware was initially sold door-to-door, a point being emphasized at the open house by actors portraying traveling salespeople in period costumes. .They answer questions about the cookware table display a few feet away from a pulled pork taco station.

Florence eventually moves to a quieter part of the plant, where he continues to sign autographs and pose for photos with fans. As they wait in line, they are offered hors d’oeuvres prepared by culinary students from Johnson County Community College.

When I arrive at the front of the line, I introduce myself and plan to ask a single question but Florence is eager to elaborate on his venture, so he starts talking in soundbites.

“I think it’s telling this great authentic American story,” he says. “This place could have wrapped up a long time ago. It used to be the largest cookware company in America and now it’s the smallest.”

In the 1970s, Mamoru Imura, a foreign exchange student to the United States, was introduced to the cookware. He returned to Japan and wound up turning Vita Craft into a household name. In 2002, Imura bought the company. He is owner both here and in Japan.

But the company has had a tougher time gaining recognition in its own backyard.

As the shiny, smart-looking Tyler Florence line — branded with a fork and a “TF” under the handle — rolls out, the swooping, aerodynamic handle is attracting attention. Its purpose: to redistribute the weight from the wrist to the arc.

“I have really expensive pots from France. My wife says, ‘That looks pretty but it’s too heavy’ and ‘I can’t pick it up.’ So we started playing around with weight dispersement.”

Some time-honored features remain: Florence brought back the 1940s button top “vapor seal” lids and the vintage 1939 company engraved brand logo. All pieces can move from the range to the oven to the table.

Professional chefs who have experience using the pots and pans already have a handle on what makes Vita Craft a standout in the kitchen.

Renee Kelly, chef of nearby Renee Kelly’s Harvest on Johnson Drive who attended the open house, cooks with Vita Craft, and she gave the company early feedback about the potential for redesign. “I told them, ‘If you want this in (professional) kitchens, just fix the handles.’ 

Kelly goes on to tick off the other qualities she finds most attractive: “They’re sturdy. They cook very evenly, and the clean up is awesome. I’ve never had a pan that cleaned up like that.”

Eric Negrete, owner of the interior design company DEN and creator of the Hispanic culinary showcase Comida, hefted a few of the saute pans while on the tour and liked the feel. Vita Craft donated saute pans to use at the Comida event and the featured chefs “loved working with them,” he says.

Meanwhile, Florence and Vita Craft go a long way back.

“When I was 8 years old, a guy knocked on my father’s door on a Saturday afternoon and he said, ‘You don’t know me from anybody but I want to make you dinner. I work with a company called Vita Craft, and if you like the cookware I want to sell it to you. Can I make you dinner?’

“My dad let him in and then he made this amazing dinner — all the bells and whistles and all the demos and stuff — and it was fascinating to me. My dad bought the cookware right there on the spot, and it was the first cookware I ever learned to cook on. And my dad still has it today.”

The pots come with a lifetime guarantee, but Noah Belcher, a teen cook who recently lent his precocious palate to a Chow Town condiment panel, was less interested in pots and pans than getting Florence to sign his cookbook and pose for an Instagram selfie.

“I just like his personality. He’s funny,” Belcher says.

Karie Keeney, Vita Craft’s marketing manager, said Florence’s interactions during his Kansas City visit conveyed a genuine commitment to the many hidden people behind the brand.

“He not only talked to the employees and told them how important their job is, he also spent an hour with the culinary students. … He’s really going to help propel this into the market.”

Before signing on, Florence received a saute pan signed by workers who had been with the company for decades. The powerful gesture sealed the deal: “I get invited to be a part of a lot of things I don’t really want to do. That I would never do, like put my name on something made in China. It’s so surprisingly easy to do,” he says. “I decided I really wanted to wait for the right opportunity.”

The design process took 2  1/2 years because it started from scratch: “They make nothing like we’re making now, but they had the bits and pieces laying around.”

The 10-piece, five-ply stainless steel cookware set has an aluminum core. Pieces sell for $131.90 for a 1-quart saucepan with lid to $302.40 for an 8-quart pot with lid. A set costs $1,043.55.

“It’s not the cheapest thing on planet Earth,” Florence admits. “Like, I’m not going to make crap. I would never make anything that is going to show up at a yard sale. That’s my promise.”

Since Vita Craft started with door-to-door sales, the line will be sold direct-to-consumer on Amazon.com starting Black Friday, but eager consumers can pre-order with free shipping at kkeeney@vitacraft.com or by calling 800-359-3444.

“I think we’re in a different era of the celebrity chef world. It’s not about me. It’s about you. It’s not about me. It’s about this,” Florence says while sweeping his hand toward the action on the factory floor. “And I’d rather tell an authentic manufacturing story in America and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them, and make something together, versus saying this is my cookware.”

Jill Wendholt Silva is The Star’s James Beard award-winning food editor. She is also lead restaurant critic, a food stylist and Chow Town’s blog curator. Reach her on Twitter at @kcstarfood and @chowtownkc or Instagram as @chowtownkc.

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