CANONSBURG, Pa. - Along a winding two-lane road amid the rolling hills about 20 miles southwest of Pittsburgh lies a couple of nondescript industrial buildings, noteworthy for one thing only - some of the world's finest cookware is manufactured inside.
That's not just a lot of hot steel, either. Try holding an All-Clad skillet in your hand. You will feel the heft immediately. Then you will likely notice the craftsmanship, from the handle's oversized rivets to the stainless-steel cooking surface that's polished to a star-burst sparkle.
"We consistently pick All-Clad as our favorite skillet," says Christopher Kimball, editor of Cook's Illustrated magazine and host of public television's America's Test Kitchen, both of which regularly test cookware (but don't accept paid advertising). "They are expensive, but it's money well-spent."
Few professional chefs would disagree. All-Clad pans long have been considered the best of the best in the trade, at least for those who could afford them. The classic 12-inch fry pan retails for $150 - about four times the price of a standard steel or cast-iron pan.
For years, the company catered mostly to upscale restaurants - and perhaps to some well-informed amateur chefs. That was until the 1990s, when professional-grade kitchen appliances for the home and the joys of gourmet cooking became all the rage. All-Clad watched sales skyrocket from $5 million annually in 1988 to more than $110 million today.
"Cooking has gone from a chore to a social activity, and there are people who want to use the best tools possible," says Peter Cameron, All-Clad Metalcrafters' president and chief executive officer. "It's like wanting to have Tiger Wood's golf clubs. People want the pan [TV chef] Emeril [Lagasse] uses."
But what makes an All-Clad pan exceptional is not merely its looks and weight. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak, and in the case of a pan, it can be found in how it's made.
All-Clad is, essentially, a metal sandwich: Different materials (chiefly aluminum and stainless steel) are bonded or clad together by a combination of heat and pressure. It's a process invented in the 1960s by All-Clad's founder, John Ulam, and its applications have included such things as cargo doors on jets, industrial-strength pipes and the griddles in fast-food kitchens.
In 1975, the first All-Clad cookware reached the market - New York City's Bloomingdale's department store was the first retailer - and eventually proved such a hit that cookware has become 90 percent of the company's product line.
"People love it even if they don't know what bonded metal is," says Catherine Ulam Fischer, the late founder's daughter and vice president of sales. "They know it works. They don't know the hows and whys."
How it works is a relatively simple matter of physics. Aluminum and copper are ideal conductors of heat. Pans made from either metal heat quickly and evenly, preventing hot spots and allowing the user to adjust cooking temperatures more precisely.
But neither metal presents an ideal cooking surface - both interact with the acids in food in a way that can affect taste (and, in some cases, leach unhealthy chemicals). Stainless steel is terrific as a cooking surface, but not as a conductor. Stainless won't impart flavors but it won't heat evenly.
"No single metal is ideal," says Harold McGee, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based author who writes on the science of cooking. "Stainless steel might be the ideal cooking surface, but it's just not a very good conductor of heat."
Relatively few All-Clad pans are coated with a nonstick surface, and that's deliberate. Fine cooking often demands a buildup of fond, those brown bits that stick to the bottom of the saute pan and are used as the basis for sauces and stocks.
"Something like 70 to 80 percent of the cookware sold in this country is nonstick, and that's ridiculous. It should be the reverse," says Kimball. "You don't need that when you're sauteing meat or chicken. You want that fond."
But there's more to All-Clad's mettle than its metal. There are other bonded pans - Viking, Calphalon, Cuisinart and KitchenAid, to name a handful - but it is All-Clad that carries the mystique.
That mystique can be traced, at least in part, to an effective marketing campaign aimed at high-end consumers. All-Clad underwrites many of the gourmet cooking shows on public television and Food Network. Chances are, the pan you see in the hands of pros like Emeril, Julia Child or Jacques Pepin is made by All-Clad.
And that appeals not just to cooks but also to people who may just want to show off. Some of the company's most loyal fans are collectors, people who write letters asking when a new design - a rice pot, lasagna pan or 6-quart wok - might hit the market.
The cookware is seldom discounted. Williams-Sonoma is All-Clad's leading purveyor, and the emphasis is on performance and prestige, not price.