By Hope S. Philbrick
Sea Island Forge, based in St. Simons Island, Georgia, is sparking new traditions in backyards nationwide with its kettles.
Every Sea Island Forge kettle can be used as a both a fire pit and an open-fire cooking system—and it’s easy to switch back and forth between the two uses. The kettle debuted at the Sea Island Farmers’ Market in 2014 and has been luring fans to its flames ever since.
In addition to functionality, these pieces are crafted with the goal of bringing together family and friends—and are made to last generations.
Steve and Sandy Schoettle, the husband and wife team that co-owns Sea Island Forge, periodically work with the executive chef at Pursell Farms to host cooking events that showcase the kettles. Before a recent event, the couple took time to answer our burning questions:
What led you to launch Sea Island Forge?
Steve: I graduated from Auburn University with an art degree then moved home to start a construction company, then started doing ornamental metal work to differentiate us from all the other construction companies on St. Simons Island. We were doing ornamental metal work only for our clients for about 10 years, then we started doing it for other contractors. Now we don’t do any general contracting, only ornamental metal work.
The construction market changed after 2008. It wasn’t fun anymore. Our kids were going off to college. We wanted to start a different business where we could do some travel, meet people, but keep creating. We already had all the metal tools and came up with the idea for the fire kettle. We started with the 30-gallon kettle and stand, and it all grew from there. We were sitting around the fire in the backyard and thought, ‘Mmmm, I’d like to grill a steak on this.’ So we started designing and prototyping different cooking accessories and the chef world really embraced them. Open fire cooking is an amazing way to get great flavors. First and foremost, we designed the fire pit and then a line of accessories that can completely change it from a pit to a professional grade cooking system. But when you’re done cooking it’s just a couple of bolts and you’re back to the fire pit.
What do you mean by ‘ornamental metal work’?
Steve: We still do ornamental metal work with brass, bronze, copper, tin, pewter, zinc, aluminum, stainless steel and it’s everything from big chandeliers to wall sconces, spiral staircases to Juliet balconies, handrails to cooking hoods—it’s whatever people want. We get all kinds of obscure requests.
Tell me more about your kettle.
Sandy: It grew out of our need to cook in our backyard.
Steve: People around St. Simons had antique kettles and they’d burn fires in them. We were looking for an antique kettle, but they’re very expensive and they’re not made out of the right kind of metal to be used as a fire pit.
Sandy: The antique kettles are made for cooking liquid in them with a fire under them.
Steve: The antique ones are a gray iron which is a raw basic kind of cast iron, and you’d have a fire under the kettle and put liquid in it, whether it was sugar cane syrup or water for scalding hogs. The liquid kept the metal safe from cracking. When you put fire inside it and no liquid the risk is cracking that expensive antique kettle.
Sandy: That’s why people say they’re fragile.
Sea Island Forge kettles are made to last?
Steve: All our pieces are designed and engineered for as long a life cycle as possible. The kettles and stands will be around for many generations. In fact, we tell people, ‘You should put this in your will and decide who gets to inherit it because otherwise your great-great-grandchildren will be fighting over whose memories are more valuable.’
We’re always trying to figure out a better way to make something, how to make it last longer, to help memories stay with the piece and get handed off to next generation. For instance, right now we make a cypress wooden table top cover for the kettle when it’s not in use—it protects the kettle somewhat from the elements but it also turns it into a coffee table so it’s still a usable space on the patio when not in use. That top will last 15 to 20 years, but we’re prototyping a new top that should last 30 to 40 years. It’s a marine grade plywood substrate wrapped with copper or sheet metal; it looks like a French bistro tabletop.
Do you typically demonstrate Sea Island Forge kettles at events?
Sandy: It’s about building relationships, not just about pushing our products. We got to know David Pursell before we started coming up here. We try not to push ourselves on anybody.
Steve: At Pursell we’ve primarily done chef demonstrations. This is our first time bringing so much gear so everybody has their own kettle. It kind of brings me back to science class days when everyone had a lab station.
What goes into designing accessories?
Sandy: We always want to come up with new products to stay relevant and that can use the fire in a different way, adding to the overall experience.
Steve: We gear them to making real memories, not just an Instagram post, not just something for Throwback Thursday in a couple of years.
Sandy: We ask chefs for feedback.
The shape has evolved?
Steve: We did a lot of studying and engineering on the original design of the kettle. It’s not as critical on the 50 gallon because the diameter is so big, but on the 30 gallon if the bowl is too deep the fire won’t breathe and if it’s too shallow the sides of the bowl won’t reflect the heat back to the core of the fire for an efficient burn. With good seasoned firewood you can have an almost smokeless fire. Fires need to be lit about an hour to an hour and a half before cooking for the right amount of thermal mass and get the bowl up to temperature.
Form follows function?
Steve: On the stand there’s a twisted metal rope called the boot rail. We don’t twist that metal because it looks good. What the twist actually does is maximize the surface area to dissipate heat, so even with a real hot fire going that boot rail will never get hot enough to burn you.
Sandy: Or your shoes!
Steve: We’ve had fires going on the beach and put our bare feet on that boot rail. Even our subtle design elements have a purpose. It’s not just that something looks good, there’s engineering reason behind it.
Sandy: And it’s also beautiful.
Steve: We design for function over form—and if you truly understand function, then your form inevitably should be gorgeous.
Can the kettle work as a pizza oven?
Steve: Yes. There are two accessories for woodfire pizza: the adjustable height grill raises and lowers plus pivots out to one side, and we also have a stainless steel heat dome that lets you roll smoke over the top of whatever you’re cooking.
Many other outdoor cooking systems are made in Georgia, including Big Green Egg.
Steve: Some chefs use a variety. We have a Big Green Egg, too. We’re not saying anything bad about the others! But after you’re done cooking on a grill you never grab that bottle of wine and say, ‘Let’s hang out.’ But with the fire kettle, after eating you can hang out by the fire.
Sandy: Among our accessories are roasting forks for grilling s’mores…or peaches, pineapple, shrimp, sausage, whatever people think of! It’s about building traditions with family and friends.
Steve: Everything is better around a fire. Stories are funnier, wine sweeter, beer colder, I look more handsome…
Sandy: Haha! Yes, the warm glow improves everything.
Pursell Farms hosts cooking demonstrations, hands-on cooking classes, and other culinary events featuring Sea Island Forge kettles. Watch and learn, eat and mingle at the rain or shine experience.
386 Talladega Springs Rd.
Sylacauga, AL 35151
Sea Island Forge
St. Simons Island, GA 31522
Kettle prices start at $1,500.
– Photos © HSP Media LLC
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