Why Southern Chefs Are Picking Pottery Like Produce
Asking the waiter where the plates and cups were sourced probably isn’t part of your standard dining-out routine. But in the South, it's not so uncommon to flip over a plate to skim the bottom and catch the stamped logo or brand name. While this might seem rather Portlandia-ish, chefs are now working more closely than ever with local pottery makers to create one-of-a-kind pieces. Sure, the food is the star of the show, but choosing the right dishes is almost as important as picking the right produce.
“It would feel amiss to talk about this trend without giving a nod to Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, who really pioneered this idea,” says Connie Matisse, East Fork Pottery’s founder and creative director. “Chefs have been very attentive in where they're sourcing their meat and produce from for a while now, but Chez Panisse was one of the first places to take the same care when it came to plating and serving her food. We, for one, are pleased to see this shift happening in restaurants across the South.”
Here, a few Southern chefs and pottery makers talk us through the process.
Yes, it's like sourcing local produce
“I think that to fully represent a ‘localist’ mentality, you should be looking to incorporate as many local artisans in your efforts,” says chef John May of Durham’s Piedmont, who’s been working closely with Matt Hallyburton of Hallyburton Pottery since meeting via a local art connoisseur several years back. “In that sense, it is just like choosing local produce,” he says. Hallyburton’s pieces are handcrafted with clay from the Catawba Valley region of North Carolina. “This is a regional pottery tradition that I really identify with because it's where I grew up,” says Hallyburton. “Right now, I have some dinnerware that is glazed primarily with materials from Durham or right around Durham.”
Philip Krajeck, chef and owner of Rolf and Daughters in Nashville, turns to Jess Cheatham at Salt Ceramics for all things pottery for the restaurant. “It’s important to work with a ceramist who understands our perspective as a restaurant,” he says. “This is essentially the same thing we look for in our relationship with farmers. It’s not just about the end product—which, mind you, is very important—but the entire relationship start to finish. It is my goal for everything we do to involve conscious decision making.”
It goes far beyond picking out an attractive plate
Choosing the perfect table setting is an intricate process. Think preliminary sketches, ongoing meetups and more—similar to the process of a fashion designer. “The most recent planning session was at a local beer bar, while playing a few rounds of Golden Tee,” says May. “In between turns, we came up with five or six pieces based on what I envisioned putting in them—Matt will sketch them out and we can discuss sizes or glazes.”
Aesthetics affect taste
At Cúrate in Asheville, chef Katie Button works closely with East Fork Pottery to create aesthetically pleasing plates for her vibrant menu of Spanish tapas. “It is important because as everyone says you eat with your eyes first, and you need a beautiful vessel that shows off the food and fits the setting and concept of your restaurant,” she says. “I worked with East Fork to develop colors for the pottery that matched the Cúrate aesthetic—they had to create some brand new colors just for us.”
Chefs are (basically) like fashion designers
Often, when seeking a new plate, chefs come to the table with an idea of what they intend to serve on it, so size, width, angles, textures and everything in between is discussed prior to samples being crafted. “Sometimes I want a drastic show piece that proclaims loudly for any guest to hear, ‘This is handmade pottery and more than just a plate,’” says May. “A plate is something that you serve food on, but when the food is served on something that was created specifically for those particular ingredients it becomes more.”
Customization elevates plating
Hallyburton, who also works with Husk’s Savannah, Greenville and Nashville locations, works closely with Sean Brock and his team of wildly talented chefs. Each spot has its own vibe. In Nashville, for instance, Hallyburton notes that custom white plates were requested for specific dishes, while size specs and glaze combinations were sent along for others. Mollie Jenkins, of Mollie Jenkins Pottery in Georgia, also worked with Husk Savannah for several custom pieces, including a specific dinner plate, “which consisted of a sloped edge to not limit the chef on how he could plate his cuisine,” says Jenkins. The dinner plates, she notes, have steeper sides than a standard dinner plate.
At Cúrate, Button reviewed colors, shapes, sizes and styles extensively during the preliminary process for a round of custom bowls. “When we knew the exact shape or style of a bowl that we wanted and how we wanted them to stack, so as not to put pressure on the edges of the plates, we had them design a new shape of shallow bowl just for us,” she says.
“We made gorgeous wide-rimmed pasta bowls for Brian Canipelli at Cucina 24, our absolute favorite restaurant in town,” says Matisse. “When he started plating on East Fork, Brian told us that his ‘food had finally found a home.’ Our glaze colors are simple but rich and provide an uncluttered canvas for food—something that chefs have really gravitated towards. We're currently developing a new clay body with clay sourced entirely from the southeast that will make our pots even more durable.”
May, who is always looking forward to the next dish and perfect piece of pottery to plate it on, is smitten over all his custom pieces, but there’s one standout. “The coolest piece yet is essentially a piece of clay that begins high on one side, slopes down drastically to a flat point and then a small lip on the other side,” he says. “It resembles an amphitheater to me. It is the perfect piece to display a long presentation on.” Hallyburton says that May’s inspiration can be as obscure as "I want the plates to look/feel like concrete" to "I want something white and speckled.”
In the restaurant industry, word of mouth travels fast, as in, chefs and customers often inquire about these delicate pieces when dining out. “We made a custom ramen bowl for Patrick O’Cain at Gan Shan Station (where we eat at least two times a week)—which has now become a piece that our customers request constantly,” says Matisse. Button, on the other hand, discovered East Fork Pottery by way of a candle holder gifted by a friend. “That week I happened to hear two or three other people mention their work, so I had to reach out and learn more about what they are doing,” she says.