While Connor McGinn loved working in clay as an elective during the time he was getting his degree in business and marketing, he never thought it would end up being his career and passion. You might say it fell into his lap. It all started at North, a farm-to-table restaurant in Armonk, New York, where he started out peeling carrots and chopping onions, then quickly worked his way up to sous chef. Chef Eric Gabrynowicz and his partner, Stephen Mancini, were really “doing it right,” said McGinn. He explained, “They saw the value in bringing together the absolute best ingredients and products to work with. They were working with local farmers, brewers, and winemakers. They were paying attention to the details of the tabletop, what the servers wore, the décor, the lighting in the restaurant. When they put a plate of food in front of you, it would tell you a story.” Everything was very thoughtfully curated. But at the time, they weren’t yet using handmade tableware, even though the shift away from the French classic white plates to handmade wares was happening pretty rapidly in the high-end restaurant world, thanks to shows like Netflix’s Chef’s Table and celebrity chefs taking their food art on clay art to Instagram. The world was learning that food didn’t have to be served on a plain white plate.
A New Opportunity
Then one day, everything changed. McGinn remembers, “The chefs called me up to the office. They had just gotten two handmade plates from a ceramic artist as a sample. They were so excited about the pieces and they wanted my opinion, because they knew I had some experience with clay. They asked me if I could make something like it. I saw how excited they were, and looking down the barrel of a long and grueling career in the restaurant industry as a sous chef, I saw the opportunity and foolishly I said, ‘I think I can do that.’ Compared to these samples, the pieces I made for North were completely different in style, form, color and even methods of construction. The aha moment was realizing that the owners appreciated the value of having handmade plates, and that I thought I could make something at the level of quality they were looking for. . . . The story that comes along with having handmade plates is more about the relationship between the potter and the chef /owner.”
In an instant everything changed, and that clay class he had been taking for fun suddenly got serious. McGinn started making sample pieces and getting their feedback. At Clay Art Center in Port Chester, New York, he quickly rose from being an intermediate student to acquiring artist status with a shared space and the ability to fire his own work. Among his clay artist peers, he learned to test clay bodies, fire cone-10 reduction kilns, mix glazes, and maintain a balance between his clay life and life at the restaurant. It did not take long before they put in a real order—they asked him to make place settings for a 20-seat Chef’s Table event.
McGinn recalls, “It was two days before the opening and all of the dishes for the event were in the kiln, and it was the first time I was firing the kiln by myself. I had no idea what I was doing. I opened up the kiln, and 75% of the pieces had broken due to carbon coring. I was devastated. In a complete panic, I immediately called the chef and said, ‘They’re all broken.’ Gabrynowicz said, ‘Don’t worry, buddy. Do you think I didn’t expect something like this might happen? Get back to it.’ They took a risk on me when they let me walk into their kitchen ten years ago, and they took a risk on me again with the plates. They gave me the opportunity to mess up and then work through the mistakes and try again. They now give me complete creative freedom and are regular customers.”
An Expanding Practice
McGinn soon quit the restaurant to focus on learning and honing his clay skills. To make ends meet, he took a part-time job as a bartender at another wonderful farm-to-table restaurant, Twisted Oak, in his hometown of Tarrytown, New York. Soon he was making dishes for them and had the opportunity to serve people at the bar with his own plates. This was an incredible gift. He was able to see firsthand how customers responded to and interacted with his tableware. He could see how the pieces functioned, how they worked in the kitchen and out. Through this interactive process, which sometimes involved talking directly with the customers, he developed a line of work.
McGinn expanded his space at Clay Art Center and started to focus on this new adventure as a real business. His put his business degree to work and honed his brand. With word of mouth and Instagram as his main marketing tools, McGinn’s business grew quickly. His audience? The tight-knit community of high-end farm-to-table restaurants, ones that are chef driven, seasonal, ingredient focused, and concerned with aesthetics. They share ideas, workers, farmers and fishmongers, and rely on local craftspeople to create an environment where, together with their customers, they can celebrate food as art.
McGinn’s style? Simple, rustic, earthy, and handmade. The food and the dish are equal in stature and are made to complement each other. While it is a collaboration with each chef client to come up with a line of work that complements the aesthetic and mission of their restaurant, these elements are always there. Using various stonewares and porcelains, McGinn’s work considers the practicalities of the kitchen environment, while embracing the materiality of the clay. Given that handmade pots are a luxury item in a restaurant, costing two to five times more than manufactured china, there has to be a return on their investment. “Restaurants are coming to me because they know the difference having handmade tableware can make in the customer experience. That said, they need to hold up. It can’t just be beautiful; it has to be durable and reliable. I have to take feedback from everyone in the restaurant, from the chef and line cooks, to the server and the dishwasher. A chef will look at how the sauce will sit in it. A line cook will want them to stack, and the stack can’t be wobbly or unstable. For a server, they can’t be too heavy, and you have to be able to get your fingers underneath the plate and lift it off the table with one hand. For a dishwasher, it has to fit in the dishwasher rack, and it can’t crack or chip. And all these things need to be balanced with the look of the thing,” McGinn states.
Freedom to Create
The creative parameters differ from restaurant to restaurant. Almost right from the beginning McGinn had the opportunity to work with celebrity Chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, a local restaurant with international acclaim. “The first thing he did was invite me to dinner. It was very high end: a 25–30 course meal and an unbelievable experience. Barber asked me to bring him some samples, and then he didn’t want any of them. He sent me back to the studio. When I asked him, ‘what do you want?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. You’re the potter.’ He gave me what seemed like no direction at all. But in reality, he was giving me the freedom to make things that are really different—that wouldn’t normally be seen in a restaurant environment. They weren’t plates and bowls. They were things that don’t exist. I would drop off 30 completely new and different designs for Barber to take a look at. He would laugh at a couple, but then he would pick up one or two pieces that really piqued his interest and we’d talk about how we could tweak them to make them even better. Blue Hill has a lot of staff. They can handle more delicate, fragile pieces that need more attention and care. When he says ‘I need new things,’ I now know what to do.” Connor would go back to his studio and play. He would drape a torn slab over a golf ball to create a palm-sized, bowl-like object; throw closed-form pillows or clouds for presenting food; and carve sculptural ledges from a block of porcelain. Connor’s goal was to create new objects that would inspire Barber to create new items for his menu.
For Chef Jeff Taibe at Taproot in Bethel, Connecticut, when it came time to open his restaurant, he knew everything had to be made by hand from scratch—from the bar and tables to the tableware. For his simple, good food he was looking for simple, down-to-earth pots. McGinn happened to be the brother of one of his best friends, and when he saw McGinn’s work online, Taibe asked him to first make some bread and butter plates. Taibe shares,“I loved how each plate was the same but different, depending on where it was in the kiln. They were perfect yet imperfect, which keeps to my approach to food. When I plate food, it’s simple and neat and all the food is where it needs to be, but it’s not pretentious.” Since those first bread and butter plates, Taibe added dinner plates and bowls and was happy to share that after three years, he’s still using some plates that were from that first order. He explains, “They are just as strong and durable as any other plate, but I knew I wanted to use handmade. Everything is local, handmade artisanship. It makes a difference.”
Building a Business
After launching his business four years ago, McGinn took another plunge and opened up his own studio. With 7000 square feet and 3 part-time employees, McGinn is juggling 10–15 orders at any given time, some in the design phase and others in production and as large as 1500 pieces. “It’s a good business model,” he says. “They order and then they order replacements. While the work is durable and lasts, they are always needing more pieces. The chefs I am working with are always wanting something different for their tasting menus, and they really enjoy having an eclectic mix to choose from when plating new dishes.”
With such a large space, McGinn also had the opportunity to invite other makers working in the restaurant industry to share the space with him. The rent from two woodworkers and a blacksmith helps to lighten the cost of his monthly lease, which allows him to invest in the equipment he needs to expand his business. The studio, named Makers Central, is actually turning into another line of business. “Working with other makers, I am realizing that most people who make don’t know what it takes to run a business. People are great artists but not always inclined to be calculated and business oriented.” Makers Central has turned out to be a small business incubator, with McGinn guiding the way for other makers. “I’m helping them set up their Quickbooks, sell and market their product to restaurants, and we’re having conversations about what we’re struggling with. We are a community of like-minded makers.” With some hard work, risk taking, and willingness to learn from failure and take help from other people when needed, McGinn has found success. “The end product is not just me. It’s a collaboration. Being okay with that is a constant process, but it doesn’t need to be just me. It is so much better when it involves more people.”
the author Leigh Taylor Mickelson is an artist, writer, curator, and independent consultant working with arts businesses and nonprofits to help them develop and grow. Visit her website at www.leightaylormickelson.com to learn more.