Executive Chef David Levi’s restaurant, Vinland, is located in the heart of the Arts District in Portland, Maine—a city recognized nationally for its abundance of celebrated restaurants. Vinland serves 100% local and organic food. In Maine that means no lemon, black pepper, or olive oil, among other ingredients that most kitchens consider to be culinary staples. In keeping with the local food focus, and most importantly to craft enthusiasts, nearly every dish on the menu is served on a piece of handmade, locally-crafted pottery.
Elizabeth Louden: While in the initial stages of planning Vinland, did you envision using handmade pottery?
David Levi: Yes, and that idea settled in while I was doing my stage [apprenticeship] at Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark, where they plate almost everything on handmade pottery. It was immediately obvious to me that it was an important part of their aesthetic and most definitely heightened the dining experience. It was beautiful pottery and I wondered if I’d be able to source work I liked as much in Maine. As soon as I found Jody Johnstone, who lives and works in Swanville, Maine, I had my answer.
EL: Where were you first introduced to Jody’s work?
DL: I first saw her work at the Common Ground Fair. I had explicitly gone to the fair—Maine’s annual organic farming fair, and the largest such annual event in the world—that year to find potters whose work I could showcase at Vinland. I was also interested in basket weavers, wooden-bowl turners, and textile weavers, but mostly potters. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to afford more than a handful of pieces given my shoestring budget, but planned to build up a collection over time.
EL: How long did it take you to acquire enough pieces to primarily serve on handmade pottery?
DL: As it turned out, it happened immediately. I had run a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the restaurant, and one of my larger backers was a family in New York, whose prize was a tasting menu for ten people in their home. I was startled when I entered the home and saw major works by Picasso, de Kooning, Pollock, Kline, and a host of other top-tier artists on every wall. I’d had no idea that they were serious collectors. My host asked me if there would be work from local artists in the restaurants. I spoke of Jody Johnstone and my plans to eventually assemble a decent collection of her work. At the end of the meal, she quietly slipped me a $2000 check made out to Jody.
EL: The tableware at your restaurant primarily consists of three different forms by Jody: a square plate, a round plate, and a large, low bowl. Were the three forms that you currently use specifically designed for Vinland?
DL: No, each time that I bought from Jody I selected from what she had to offer.
EL: How did you decide on these types of dishes from her entire body of available work?
DL: The large shallow pasta bowls are incredibly versatile. Of course, we needed plates, too, and the concave square plates were the only plates she had available in any quantity at the time. I later bought the round plates from her while attending one of her biannual kiln opening sales.
EL: Have you found that the pottery influences the way that you decide to plate food?
DL: Absolutely. One minor example would be desserts. When we used to serve desserts like custard or semifreddo (semi-frozen dessert) in factory-made ramekins, we could fill the vessel and have a perfect portion. With handmade pieces, the sizes were not uniform, so we couldn’t simply fill the vessels without pretty major variations in portion size. So, we began to ball the semifreddo and form the parsnip custard into quenelles. It’s a minor thing, but emblematic of the many ways my plating takes cues from the plates themselves.
EL: To what degree do high cost and breakage detract from your desire to use handmade pottery?
DL: These are real issues, no doubt. I’ve learned the hard way just how challenging it is to use handmade ceramics day in and day out in a professional kitchen. I lost half of my original Jody Johnstone collection in the first year. We had to implement dramatically different policies, set up the dishroom a little differently, and basically instill in the staff a very different and altogether more mindful attitude toward dishware than exists in nearly all other restaurants.
I don’t allow handmade pottery to be placed in the bus bins, where they could easily be jostled, chipped, and even crushed by pans, silverware, or the dishes themselves. I insist that handmade pieces be carried to the dishroom separately and placed on a rack affixed to the wall over the sink. Once clean, all of the handmade work is returned to the kitchen in small stacks and set down carefully.
Part of teaching people to handle the work with care is instilling in them a sense of how the pieces were made and who made them. Whenever someone new joins the Vinland team, we go over the various types of dishware, and some of the common questions that the guests have.
I know we’ll always lose a piece here or there; I’ve certainly broken a few. But I remain every bit as committed to using local craft pottery as I am to using all local and organic ingredients. It’s who we are as a business, and it would both cheapen and dilute our identity if we were ever to let that go.
EL: You now have several potters other than Jody represented in your collection for service at Vinland. Who are they and how did you find them?
DL: I met Betsy Levine early on at the Common Ground Fair. She’s a member of the Maine Potter’s Market, where I’ve also purchased pieces by David Orser and Laurel MacDuffie of Cedar Mountain Potters, and you [Elizabeth Louden].
EL: The first time I ate at Vinland, I immediately recognized Jody’s work. As both a studio potter and a collector of Maine pottery, the decision to use locally crafted plates and bowls stayed at the forefront of my mind throughout the meal. The subtle colors and textures of Jody’s surfaces are a wonderful compliment to your style of plating. Do people comment on the handmade pottery often?
DL: All the time. In addition to all the vessels for food, we have vases and decorative bowls on display, including in the bathrooms and above the shelves and on the counter of the bar. People have every opportunity to take in the presence of craft pottery all around them, along with the fine carpentry, the paintings by local artist MP Landis, the birch panels of my own design, and so forth. Vinland, I think, like any truly good restaurant, strives to create a total sensory experience.
Unlike many restaurants, it does so based on a very real mission, so there are no cut corners. I think that resonates with diners, and it often leads to questions and comments about the particular elements of the space—very much including the pottery. The servers are therefore all prepared to speak about the potters and their different firing techniques. Since it’s a tiny restaurant with an open kitchen, the questions often come to me, and I love having the opportunity to talk to my guests about the particular practices and qualities of the different potters. It’s a fun part of my daily routine.
To learn more about Vinland, visit vinland.me. To learn more about the Maine potters discussed, visit jodyjohnstonepottery.com, mainepottersmarket.com, prescotthillpottery.com, cedarmountainpotters.com, and loudenpottery.com.
the author Elizabeth Louden is a potter in Mid-Coast Maine specializing in porcelain tableware. She and chef David Levi are partners. A member of the Maine Potters Market, Louden works out of her home studio in an old colonial house in Bath, Maine.