Trendy Potters Supply Top Eatery
By Marcus Crowder
Published Feb. 13, 2011
Ceramic artists Scott Parady and Trent Burkett create distinctive pottery that straddles the blurry line between craft and art. The sometimes awkward position recently became more pronounced with a high-profile commission. The two fine arts professors – Parady at California State University, Sacramento, and Burkett at University of the Pacific in Stockton – are producing handmade plateware for Michael Mina restaurant in San Francisco. Each also has local gallery representation – Burkett at Jay Jay and Parady at b. sakata garo.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to put handmade pots in the hands of thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people who would otherwise probably never see or touch them,” Parady said. He was preparing a set of pieces for a kiln at CSUS, as he and Burkett filled an order for the restaurant. The visionary Mina, a James Beard Rising Star Chef in 1997 and Best Chef California in 2002, has a culinary empire including 17 restaurants all over the United States, but he made his reputation at a high-ceilinged space called Aqua in a row of top-end eateries on California Street.
Although Mina left Aqua to establish outposts around the country, he always wanted a signature San Francisco restaurant. He brought his first eponymous restaurant to San Francisco’s Westin St. Francis Hotel in 2004. That august room had an Old World feel with Bernardaud china, Frette linens and formally suited waiters. (That space, still part of the Mina group, now is an upscale steakhouse, Bourbon Steak.)
His new Michael Mina, which opened in October at the old Aqua space, has a contemporary edge that spotlights the work of Parady, Burkett and Berkeley-based ceramicist Jered Nelson. There are no tablecloths, so the glossy, white-glazed platters and sauce vessels stand out in bold relief against the dark, rich walnut tabletops. Parady and Nelson were brought into the project by architect Wendy Tsuji of Frost-Tsuji Architects, who reconfigured the space and conceptualized the interior with Mina. Tsuji collected work by both Burkett and Parady, owning large platters by each artist.
“I particularly love the hand-thrown intentions brought to each piece, no matter if it is a basic utilitarian piece or intended by the artist as an artwork or sculpture,” Tsuji said of items she’s collected. She bought the pieces at the same time, feeling they complemented each other visually, “as if they were related.” “Trent’s platter is very architectural and strong yet organic, and Scott’s platter is soft, molded and irregular, yet they each make the other one look better than either of them looks by itself,” Tsuji said.
She knew the two potters worked together and that both platters were fired in the same wood-fired kiln. It made sense to ask both to work on the restaurant project. “Michael Mina and I have discussed having a restaurant with handmade pieces for many years,” Tsuji said. The new restaurant offered them the perfect opportunity. “With the food and the design at Michael Mina in mind, my goal was to present plateware that looked and felt handcrafted and warm, yet elegant and sexy,” Mina said. “They have created the perfect vessels to serve the cuisine.” Burkett recalled the challenges of the commission: “It really pushed us to having to address the utility, the durability. Utilitarian takes on a whole new realm when you’re doing it for a restaurant of this caliber.”
The two potters also faced other unusual demands: the quantities, the criteria and the time frame for delivery of the first work. Much of the early plateware was trial-and-error experimentation. “There were crazy things like having to make something over and over to very specific dimensions,” Burkett said. They also had to demonstrate lead- and cadmium-free certification for the plateware, so samples were sent to a company that performs the tests. “The plates can’t weigh more than a certain amount, so we were making things a lot thinner than we ever have before, which is scary,” Burkett said. The whole deal came together quickly, and the two ceramicists practically lived in their studios for a couple of months last summer while producing the work. “The time frame was totally insane,” Burkett said. “We were unloading kilns the day before we delivered the orders. Each time was like a ceramic miracle.”
Parady said some potters had a dismissive attitude: “These ceramicists in the Bay Area said ‘I’m glad you’re doing it, instead of me.’ I was a little surprised. I thought, ‘I am glad I’m doing it. What’s your problem? You’re a potter, why wouldn’t you want to be doing it?’ ” Parady has been invited to show his tea ware at an exhibit called The Elusive Tea Bowl at Harvard University next month with 12 other potters from the United States and 14 prominent potters from Japan. He said both the exposure of his work and the artistic collaboration are great motivations to work with Mina.
“The chefs are basically artists with food,” he said. “They’re composing these very elaborate textures and colors and the presentation is very important, and we have a collaboration with them. Mina couldn’t agree more: “A lot of work goes into each dish on our menu, and to be able to plate these dishes on such beautiful pottery that is an expression of a totally separate craft is a great privilege. Every dish created on the plateware is regarded as a work of art, and the staff takes great pride in that.”