In a small cluttered corner in a Bywater warehouse, L.J. Gonzales works his magic on antique copper pieces. Large kitchen bowls, grain pots and soup ladles line his dusty shelves. A large poissonniére,
used to poach fish, rests nearby. Sets of old French copper pots, no longer bearing their tin linings,
are stacked on the floor.
Serious chefs know that these old copper pots are some of the finest cooking surfaces ever made. Collectors and cooks prize them for their heat retention and conductivity. Finding these antiques is a blood sport to some, and Gonzales is one of a handful of artisans in this country who can restore these centuries-old treasures.
Martha Stewart once hired him to restore small copper charlotte molds for her. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t know when I first saw her,” he says. “Then one of her producers called to say she wanted to feature me on her television show.
I told ‘em I didn’t think it would work, so she put me in her magazine.”
Famed chef Rick Bayless of Chicago’s Frontera Grill has used Gonzales’ services, and our own chef John Folse frequently sends copper pots to him. Recently, Folse hired him to restore a massive copper cauldron he’ll display at the museum at the John Folse Culinary School at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux.
Patrick Dunne of Lucullus and other prominent antique-dealers and collectors nationwide
also know they can depend on Gonzales to resurrect their finds.
But becoming a coppersmith wasn’t originally on Gonzales’ radar screen. A classical guitarist by training, he worked part-time with master metalsmith and lifelong friend Ellis Joubert. When Dunne asked the two to restore some copper pieces he’d purchased in France, neither craftsman had a clue how to do it.
“There were no books on copper-restoring, and no restorers to call, so Ellis picked the brain of a collector friend and the guys at Zito’s Plating & Polishing,” he says. “We rigged a primitive setup in Zito’s driveway and got to work.” Their plan had modest success, but it was this experience that hooked Gonzales on copper.
He located a book that had directions for copper restoration. However, the book was in French, and he didn’t know the language. Armed with a French-English dictionary, he painstakingly translated the process and began his career 13 years ago.
With few exceptions, Gonzales patiently follows the traditional French steps for re-tinning the interiors of pots and buffing the copper used by artisans centuries ago. First, he removes the tin lining on the antique pots by using muriatic acid. Once the tin is removed, the pot is rinsed thoroughly. A mixture of lye and hot water is then used to eliminate any residual grease and to neutralize the acid. Again, the pot is washed.
He then puts on two pairs of gloves to protect his hands and holds the pot over the flame of a crawfish burner. Into the pot he pours flux, a chemical that will prevent copper surfaces from oxidizing. Once the flux caramelizes, he takes an ingot of pure tin and rubs it onto the pot and then wipes the tin with a clean cotton rag until
it forms a bright luster. Small imperfections or grease dots are swept away with a brass brush. Once the tinning is completed, he buffs the exterior with an electric buffing wheel, one of his few modern conveniences.
The centuries-old craft suits him perfectly. Gonzales doesn’t have a car, a computer, health insurance or a business card. At home, he cooks using copper pots that date back two centuries. He got a telephone only a few years ago so customers could contact him. And by all accounts, they do.
When looking for an antique copper pot, he says to turn the pot upside down and look for the dovetail constructions along the bottom. Most handles are made of one piece, bent and attached to the pot with a heart-shaped base. The pots are quite heavy, and any seams are filled with brass. Hammer marks, called martelé, are uneven and not perfectly spaced. Often, the tin interior is worn and the copper’s patina is quite dark from decades, even centuries, of use.
“I’ve never found a pot I couldn’t restore,” he says. “These are worth saving. They are the finest craftsmanship.
Most of these go back to the 1800s, and they’ve lived through a lot. With patience and restoration, they can be beautiful again.”