Food and pottery are two of my favorite things. Perhaps I fell in love with pottery because it is so intertwined with one of my favorite activities: eating! Lately I have been hearing more and more about collaborations between people who create great pots and people who create great food. It turns out it can be a great business move for local potters to make pots for local restaurants. Of course there are some guidelines you should follow.
In today’s excerpt from the December 2016 issue of Ceramics Monthly, I’ve gathered some advice from a couple of artists and a chef who have successfully created such a partnership. If you have considered providing local pottery to local restaurants, you’ll benefit from this advice. – Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor
P.S. Learn more about Felt+Fat and their relationship with local chefs in the December 2016 issue of Ceramics Monthly. The issues’s theme focuses on the interrelated worlds of chefs and potters and includes several articles and interviews that talk about the importance of creativity, hard work, skill, and functionality in both fields.
Ceramics Monthly: When and why did you and Wynn Bauer form Felt+Fat studio and decided to start working with restaurants?
Nathaniel Mell: Our work with restaurants, and even the start of the business itself, was because of our connection to Chef Eli Kulp. After graduating from the Tyler school of art studying glass, I had taken a job as a server under Chef Kulp at High Street on Market while concurrently participating in the work exchange program at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. When Kulp was in the early stages of developing High Street on Market, he decided he wanted some custom-made plates and was having trouble finding something that fit his needs. He knew that I worked at The Clay Studio and asked if I would be willing to design some work for the project. I accepted the offer, and reached out to Wynn Bauer, who studied ceramics and architecture at Rhode Island School of Design, to help me with the project. Three years later, here we are with our studio, Felt+Fat.
If you’re looking for great instruction on how to make well-designed pottery, check out the late Robin Hopper’s popular book Functional Pottery. In Functional Pottery, Hopper covers all the bases – form, proportion, relationships, and mechanics. You’ll learn about lids, feet, rims, trimming, handles, tools, spouts, and handles. You’ll also find out what makes a good cup, bowl, or jar just to name a few of the many forms and objects discussed and beautifully illustrated.
Sponging the interior of a bowl before taking it out of the mold. Photo: Katrina D’autremont.
CM: What practical considerations do you take into account when designing and making work for restaurant use?
NM: Durability is huge. All of our designs get tested at the studio, but without a bunch of fancy equipment there’s only so much you can do.
Most of our in studio testing is fairly rudimentary. Of course we never use any ingredients with toxic metals, etc., to avoid any problems there. To measure the amount of water absorption, we will soak finished items overnight and weigh them before and after on a digital gram scale. To test for thermal shock resistance, we’ll microwave a plate for five minutes then immediately dunk it in ice water and repeat.
What generally happens with a new design/finish is that we roll it out in a small way with a restaurant and chef that we trust. We’ll make a dozen of something and just give them away to someone we know will use and abuse them. We actually ask the chef to be really hard on them. Recently we did this with our friend chef John Patterson, who took over at Fork for Kulp. We gave Patterson a dozen plates in this new finish that we wanted to test out. He ended up using one for a photo shoot and placed a glowing hot piece of wood on a plate. At one point, he said it must have been 600–700°F, but it held up. We really rely on restaurants to be a testing ground for our work. If the wares can’t hold up in a commercial dishwasher and stand the abuse of a busy restaurant, I don’t want to sell it to someone for their home use.
Everything we have now has proven to be really tough. I check in with all our restaurants and have gotten great feedback across the board. If something goes wrong, we fix the design.
CM: How do you source the ware/ find artists to work with?
Eli Kulp: All of our relationships with local artists as well as local producers grow very organically. There is such a great sense of community in Philadelphia that we are constantly meeting new and inspiring people.
We don’t necessarily set rigid time lines when working with the smaller producers. Typically it’s a back-and-forth conversation that eventually gets you to where you want to be. I think anytime you are building a relationship with a small producer, you have to understand their needs and limits in order for it to be fruitful.
Chef Eli Kulp’s venison tartare, pickled beech mushrooms, radish and broccoli root.
When Felt+Fat first started, we were sure to give plenty of time for them to work out the plate ware because we new it would take a couple times before we got to where we wanted to be. Nothing was fast about the process, there were many trials and failures. But we understood they were developing their business right along with our new restaurant, High Street on Market. As we grew, they grew. That is why working with them has been so satisfying for us. I think they started to realize they had a potential business here when other chefs in the city would come in for a meal and then ask about where we got the plates from. One example of this is when Nick Elmi, from Laurel restaurant, came into High Street on Market and then a short time later started to use Felt+Fat’s plates as well. The whole thing grew very organically for them. It makes us very proud to see them become more successful and know that we were a part of that.
As a chef, I take great pride in focusing on lesser-known producers and artists and showcasing their products. Whether it’s a vegetable farmer, a cheese maker, a venison farmer, or a potter, it’s amazing to see the impact we can have on their success and livelihood. We don’t take that lightly. With our successes, grow their successes and it creates a very interesting circle of small businesses working together to survive.