“selected.” “The literal.” “Sweetened.” These are all terms frequently applied to the best restaurants these days, but today we’re not talking about recipes or ingredients, but about the bowls that contain them. For many cooks, plates and cups – not to mention the perfect salt design – exist in symbiosis with the edible contents they are meant to keep.
It’s definitely a new trend. Akiko Graham, a Seattle-based potter, remembers that when she first started sharing her handcrafted dishes with San Francisco restaurants in 2003, she was met with little skepticism.
“Many chefs were concerned about using ‘handmade pottery,'” she told InsideHook. “Instead, they would like to use mostly white dishes from France, I’ve heard, to use as a canvas for their dishes.”
However, today it is just one of a growing number of artists offering more unique paper to the food of some of the city’s most famous chefs. Here’s how these potters approach their functional art.
When Oakland-based artist Erin Hope creates dishes for chefs like two-Michelin-star California Val Canto or Kim Alter of Night Bird, she sees it as a true collaboration.
When I work with [Cantu]Hope says. Then I sketch out the shapes, dimensions, and color options in my notebook. Once we agree on a concept, I go to my studio to create two or three prototypes that differ slightly from each other in color, size, or shape. After these prototypes are complete, bring them to the restaurant for the chef to prepare. We discuss which of the prototyping works best for the food and dish in prototyping before I make the full set.”
One of its latest creations for Cantu is a set of White Moon candy chargers.
“This expands our collection of moon paintings in which we explore the phases of the moon,” she explains. “The design is also a subtle nod to the California logo. The clay I used is incredibly short and unforgiving, which made this a fun challenge!”
At MMclay, MaryMar Keenan specializes in made-to-order pottery, with the flagship Progress Collection tailored for San Francisco’s The Progress restaurant.
“I had the opportunity to walk through the place when it was under construction, while discussing mood boards, design details and the menu with Chef Stuart Breuza,” she recalls. “All of these elements were taken into account while designing this working group.”
It currently produces five unique lines for restaurants and homes.
“While none of these [other lines] Developed specifically for any particular restaurant, they are all designed with the idea of the relationship between food and surface in mind. “I often say that a piece is not complete until something is presented to it.”
Occasionally Keenan produces elaborate custom pieces, such as a commissioned, intentionally broken Alter of Nightbird.
“While I was skeptical at first, the result was amazing,” Keenan says of the piece.
“Seth Stowaway from Osito wanted a piece he could actually set a fire inside at the table for his guests,” she says of another very specific design. “For these pieces, I switched to clay in order to make sure the piece could withstand the heat, and it was specifically designed to look like unearthed pots. Pushing in these directions can be tricky, and there is a certain amount of confidence to have in them. Both in operation and in vision.”
Chicago-born and Barcelona-based Cara Janel works with a wide variety of restaurants around the world, creating an earthy style inspired by things like the texture of coral or the dusty color of rose quartz. Since she doesn’t have a catalog, she often relies on Instagram to share her work with potential clients, but when a friend of a friend set up a meeting with Michelin-starred Dominique Crane, her “catalog” was actually a suitcase of samples.
“They were basically all experiments, because they were all different,” she recalls of the dozens or so of pieces displaying a range of textures, colors, and types of clay that so dazzled the chef. “It was kind of like, oh, you like anything I do, not just that specific thing.”
Len Carella made use of a range of media from stoneware, leather to glass, to craft his sculptures and practical utensils. As a specialist in restaurant ceramics, he has worked exclusively with Chef Melissa Pirello to create pieces for Octavia and Frances – principally items for serving beverages, such as mugs, cappuccino cups, espresso cups, bowls and table plates. His favorite piece was made for Octavia for the opening: a large oval plate of stoneware.
“I like the oval shape because it feels fresh compared to the round plate,” he says. “I was looking for a way to make a dinner sized dish that would be more interesting and special and found it in this oval shape. I also love how it feels and it’s very nice to eat from. I ended up making this piece of porcelain as well as stoneware in a variety of colors for many Customers since then. I also have these in my house and eat them almost every evening.”
Originally from Hokkaido, Japan, potter Akiko Graham has been based in Seattle since 1993. Her dishes have been featured on chef tables including Daniel Patterson of the now-closed Coi and Melissa Perillo of Francis.
In 2003, Ron Siegel (formerly Massa) remembers being particularly impressed with her sake cups, asking the artist to make the lids so he could use them as salt wells. When Siegel moved into the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, Graham said, “He took the jar with him.”
“I loved making them because I love making the little things, and I also love covered jars,” she says. “I love the process of making the covers.”
Along with Ester Luesma, Spanish artist Xavier Vega has designed one-of-a-kind flatware including wooden and banana leaf plates for Dominic Crane and iridescent Skitx for Chef Michael Tusk in Quince. For each piece, says Vega, “there are two important ideas: the function and the story.”
The first, he says, could refer to the stackability of a group of pieces or the ease of cleaning them. But it may also indicate the ways the pieces interact with innovations in the kitchen itself.
“As new forms of food emerge, new support needs for that food emerge,” he says, evoking molecular gastronomy techniques such as spherical or steam-based dishes.
Ceramic expert Lynne Mahon is often inspired by the terrain of Northern California when creating dishes for chefs such as Kim Alter of Nightbird or Murad’s Sweet.
“Most of the time, I will develop some kind of relationship, either going to the restaurant to eat or taking the chef to my studio,” he says of his approach. “I prefer to do both – it makes the best collaboration. I find that when you become a friend, you can do the best job that suits the chef.”
According to Mahon, the late Chef Ken Tominaga, one of the pioneers of the Bay Area sushi scene and owner of Hana’s restaurant who passed away in May at the age of 61, was one of those “great friends.”
“I’ve made a lot of dishes for Ken, but the one that comes to mind is a fish shaped dish,” he says. “These are sashimi trays that resemble the shape of an abstract fish. I added a lot of texture to the clay, which made it look great. Perhaps making these plates inspired me to sit at the sushi bar drinking tea with Ken, and think, ‘You need something interesting here.'”
For Mahone, this relationship in particular was part of what prompted him to break away from his previous attitude toward more career work about 20 years ago.
“As a little potter, I considered myself only an artist and never wanted to make anything utilitarian,” he says. “But I think the relationship with Chef Ken and his food made me think of a new path.”
This article appeared in InsideHook SF the news. Subscribe now to get more from the Bay Area.