You’re a restaurant. You want to stand out. You make your own cheese. You bake your own bread. Maybe you brew your own beer. Short of blowing your own artisanal light bulbs (yup, “Portlandia”), how else do you put your stamp on a dining experience?
If you’re like an increasing number of eateries, you commission and even help design custom serving pieces and tableware.
In other words, for some chefs and restaurateurs, plain old white dishes just aren’t cutting it anymore, especially at a time when pictures of their food are being snapped by Yelpers, Instagrammers and professional photographers.
“The food is obviously the star of the show, but to eat food off of someone’s artwork really gives it life,” said Tarver King, who has collaborated with Arlington-based design studio Cloud Terre at both his current job at the Restaurant at Patowmack Farm in Lovettsville, Va., and his previous gig at the Ashby Inn in Paris, Va.
No one knows the demand for unique tableware better than Cloud Terre owner Amber Kendrick. She and partner Ernie Niblack are busy producing items for more than a dozen clients in the area. Among the new restaurants: Pineapple and Pearls from Rose’s Luxury chef-owner Aaron Silverman; Kyirisan from Water & Wall chef-owner Tim Ma; Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s Hazel, helmed by former Tallula chef Rob Rubba; Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana from former Oval Room chef Tony Conte; and Field & Main from former Ashby Inn innkeeper Neal Wavra.
Some of the biggest-name restaurants around the country have found it worth their while — and money — to hire artists and designers to make something more interesting than mass-produced tableware. In Chicago, modernist chef Grant Achatz has been partnering for years with designer Martin Kastner for pieces at his restaurant Alinea and bar Aviary. They include a bud vase that doubles as a chopstick rest and a hand-blown glass tumbler that can spin in circles on the table (it looks kind of like a toppled dreidl).
In California, famed Heath Ceramics began working with Alice Waters at her landmark Chez Panisse in Berkeley back in 2006 and sells the line of dishes that we mere mortals can buy. Other clients have included well-known San Francisco establishments such as Vietnamese eatery the Slanted Door. The company is producing a line of dinnerware for the new Tartine Bakery project, the Manufactory, that will debut in Heath’s shop in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood in the spring. Heath can also be found locally at the Dabney, Jeremiah Langhorne’s new ode to Mid-Atlantic cuisine.
Unlike Heath, Cloud Terre doesn’t have a large factory. In fact, everything takes place in the home Kendrick shares with Niblack. The process to craft one of Kendrick’s plates takes about 10 minutes, followed by six to 13 hours in a kiln and several days of curing. All told, it’s about a week-long process. The couple are negotiating with a tableware company that will help them scale up production and expand distribution while maintaining creative control and continuing to make pieces by hand. “I think the hand should always be engaged in the material,” Kendrick said.
In that respect, the potter’s work is similar to the chef’s.
Robb Duncan, co-owner of Dolcezza Gelato, said he likes to think about contrast, color and how food might be plated. Duncan has commissioned Cloud Terre to create bowls for Mom & Pop, the Mosaic District cafe he opened this past summer with his wife, Violeta Edelman. The bowls will be used to hold garnishes, olives and spreads as part of the cafe’s charcuterie, cheese and sandwich boards. The boards themselves are custom pieces from Annapolis’s Foxwood Co. More Cloud Terre bowls are in the works for the gelato served at the Dolcezza factory near Union Market and the sundae-like coppettas at its Logan Circle shop.
Basically, Duncan said, it comes down to “what would make it look more beautiful?”
If the collaboration sounds like extra work, it is, but chefs say that’s okay. “I wanted to have a relationship with someone who wanted to make the plates,” Rubba said, just as he does with farmers. “I got tired of looking at catalogues.”
His first conversations with Kendrick skewed philosophical before they got into specifics. After a few meetings, they began to talk about forms. Rubba also sent Kendrick photos of his food. He envisioned natural tones that would suit Hazel’s wood tabletops and the setting as a whole.
King said he and Kendrick designed pieces that would tilt to allow sauce to pool in a certain place or would have an elevated pedestal to bring the aromas of the food closer to diners.
Eric Ziebold, another Cloud Terre client and chef-owner of the pending Métier and just-opened Kinship near Mount Vernon Square, said inspiration also runs from the artist’s studio to the kitchen. “You never know what they may say or what they may show you or what they may do that may trigger an idea for you,” the former CityZen chef said.
Sometimes ideas evolve off the cuff, when the pottery wheel is spinning. During one of their regular check-ins, Rubba, Kendrick and Niblack huddled around the tables at Red Apron Butchery, a Neighborhood Restaurant Group sibling, in Union Market.
Kendrick had come extra-prepared. She brought her pottery wheel: Have clay, will travel.
But first, the group went over several prototypes made in the studio. Rubba evaluated the plates for color and texture. They talked about size and shape, with Kendrick writing notes directly on the pieces. Things to think about: Making the plates small enough to fit several on a table, and flat enough to facilitate multiple people snagging bites at once — but not so flat that you can’t pick them up.
The messier part came next.
Kendrick sat at the wheel — tattooed arms, apron, dress, cowboy boots — and began shaping a mound of clay into a bowl. While it spun, she modified its shape as Rubba weighed in.
Then a twist: Kendrick suggested Rubba take a turn at the wheel. Despite his crisp white dress shirt and professed inexperience, he was game. An unintentional dimple on his slightly droopy bowl led to inspiration: indentations for hands, perfect for slurping up soup broth.
There are even more mundane things to take into account when artists create custom pieces in such high-volume environments as restaurants. Primary among them: How will they hold up and be cared for?
Thick edges help prevent chipping, Kendrick said. Exposed clay must be polished, glazes durable and food- and dishwasher-safe.
“There’s very strict rules when it comes to Amber’s plates,” said Patowmack’s King. Plates are not stacked in piles of more than 15, and different types cannot be stacked together. They aren’t used for large groups. They can, however, go in the dishwasher.
Staffers at the upcoming Shaw Bjiou probably will be trained in handling Cloud Terre plates as well. They’ll also give TLC to a host of wood serving pieces made by Caleb Woodard, an Arlington- and Nashville-based furniture maker whom chef Kwame Onwuachi and his partners hired to create tables, serving carts, jam knives, carved doors and more elements to help fill a gutted rowhouse in (where else?) Shaw.
For the serving pieces, Woodard plans to use hard maple and walnut, whose tight grain can hold up to food and the wear and tear of washing. “It’s going to be a slight amount of extra work for the staff to maintain the pieces, but I think it will be well worth the effort,” Woodard said.
Chefs also say such pieces are worth the cost. Duncan said he could pay a little more than $1 for a ramekin at a restaurant supply store, as opposed to $8 from Cloud Terre. For plates, Niblack said restaurant clients may pay $20 to $30 each. But Rubba said the price won’t factor in to what Hazel will charge for its food. And he said Kendrick’s plates are more durable than their cheaper generic counterparts.
Does it matter to customers? Woodard said insiders — craftspeople in his case — will be most likely to take in his work. On the other hand, “there are some people that go in, just sit down” and don’t notice.
At Patowmack, diners “notice like crazy,” King said. “It’s actually pretty surprising.” He added that the restaurant routinely goes through stacks of Cloud Terre business cards. (The studio sells retail plates created in conjunction with King.)
King said most of Patowmack’s stock comes from Cloud Terre, and he’s trying to build the collection with new plates for different types of food and seasons. Incorporating fresh pieces “kind of invigorates everything,” he said.
Rubba also appreciates being able to choose his own plates, a luxury many chefs aren’t afforded, as a way to send a message to diners. “I just want them to feel that someone cared from start to finish,” he said.