SANTA CRUZ, CA— Before Charles Nelson, owner of Santa Cruz, CA-based Toque Blanche had a kitchen store, he stumbled upon Chamba cookware. His business at the time focused on high-end Mexican art and his partner at the time wanted to give the cookware a platform, even though it wasn’t art— or Mexican.
“We brought it in to have in the gift shop and it sold like crazy. Eventually, we were the company’s biggest customer. So then we approached them about importing the cookware to the U.S.,” he said. Now, Nelson sells the cookware in his store as well as through his store’s website, as well as distributes it to other retailers nationwide.
The cookware, said Nelson, is handmade in a small village named La Chamba in Columbia. The clay, which contains mica that allows it to withstand heat, is mined there, as there is an abundance of it in the village. Nelson said that almost everyone in the village focuses on the creation of this cookware, from mining to shaping. The pieces are crafted inside the homes, dried outside on porches, patios and yards and fired in small ovens, which creates its black color. In some instances, certain families specialize in certain sizes or shapes. While the pieces are distinct, artisan and authentic, they are strong enough to be used on almost any cooking surface while sustaining their all-natural and unglazed state, said Nelson.
“La Chamba is really a very strong cooking vessel. It can be put in the microwave, on the stovetop, in the oven and even on the grill. But, it needs to be cared for. If dropped, it will break and it really needs to be washed by hand,” he said.
Nelson added that temperature shocking the cookware may cause it to crack or break, so do not expose it to a sudden change in temperature— for example, moving it directly from the oven into the refrigerator.
Recently, La Chamba cookware has caught the eye of editors at food-based consumer publications like Food & Wine and demand for the products is beginning to see steady growth. Now, Nelson is looking to expand his market reach and feels that it is the appropriate time to look to grow, as La Chamba seemingly fills the void of so many consumer preferences. The first, he said, is the healthy eating movement which has consumers more aware of not only what types of food they are putting in their mouths, but also what materials that food is being prepared on. La Chamba is made with clay, which is a natural substance that this demographic of consumers feel comfortable cooking with, similar to the reasons that cast iron cookware has become so popular amongst this group.
“People really love cooking with clay. The material has good heat retention and adds moisture into the dish so everything comes out juicy and moist. And a lot of people still don’t want to cook in aluminum or on a non-stick pan. Clay cookware has a future with people that are trying to live healthier,” he said.
Another factor that Nelson said is consumers, including home chefs, are looking for cookware that will help them create authentic dishes and experiences in their home kitchens. La Chamba, he said, not only has several performance benefits and an artisan story behind it, but also lends itself as a vessel in which to serve many traditional Columbian and South American recipes.
“People are really looking for authenticity in their lives and this is a way they can have that in their home,” he said.
And it’s not only the home cook that is looking to add clay cookware to their lineup of pieces, but the presence of the cookware in restaurants is beginning to grow as well.
“Chefs and restaurants really like using this cookware because not only does it perform, but it goes from the oven to the table really easily and it looks great, whether it’s just for presentation or if it’s for something more authentic,” he said.
La Chamba is available in an array of cookware styles and there is also serveware available as well. The cookware lineup includes soup and bean pots, saute pans, roasting pans, oval roasters, oval bakers, a tagine, paella pans and cazuelas. Most are available in a variety of sizes.