It’s likely that the name of the farmer who raised your steak is already on the menu at your favorite independent restaurant. It’s part of a national trend where restaurants source locally, but it’s about more than just ingredients. Community Voices producer Kateri Kosta tells about something so central to the culinary experience that you probably don't even notice it's there: your plate.
Most restaurants serve food on mass produced identical white plates. They’re made using molds overseas in ceramics factories. Like fast food, that approach is pretty bland. Bethany Kramer is a potter who makes dishes for restaurants one at a time. For her, there's something really special about slow food served on unique pottery.
"I don't think you think of the pottery immediately because you're looking at the food and you want to eat that food first, and so, together, they really start to tell a story. It comes to life when you can pair certain food with certain pieces that the glazes or the shape relate to the food. It becomes a whole experience."
Full disclosure: My family eats exclusively off of Bethany's plates. Subtle green and gold tones actually make the food glow. I'm not exaggerating. The tomatoes I grew in my garden look like these deep red jewels on her plates.
"And so it's not just how fast can I scarf down this food on this white plate, it becomes, let me take in everything that's going on around me, and it can be a slower, more enjoyable process," she says.
Bethany loves making pottery but there is a practical side too, and that has to do with whether she can support herself doing just the work that she loves full time.
"I've been working toward this kind of dream or goal for a long time, for about 10 years, really. I was always really nervous to kind of take that jump and make the plunge into working full time for myself. and you just never know if you're going to get the work or not, so that was always a hard decision for me."
She got a big break when a local chef and restaurateur picked up her business card at the Bellevue Kentucky Farmer's Market. About a year later, he left her a voicemail.
"I do credit him for allowing me to be able to kind of live out my dream and my passion because he really started me off in you know, making work for restaurants," says Bethany.
"We certainly weren't the first ones to say that we're going to use, you know, pottery, in our restaurant, so it's obviously something that's been going on before we opened this restaurant. But we, in Cincinnati, were some of the first people to do it. And it's something that I think is, the trend's going to grow," says Chef Jose Salazar on a busy Wednesday night at his restaurant in Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati.
Bethany developed an exclusive line of pottery just for the restaurant, and he sources his ingredients from more than 30 different small farms
"Just like with the farmers, it's all about a total experience, right? So, you know, one carrot doesn't make the experience, and one plate doesn't make the experience, but when you bring all those together, then you have something special. You know, it's like an orchestra."
This is actually part of a larger movement that's gaining energy connecting independent restaurants and handmade pottery. Naysan McIlhargey is a foodie, but he's also the artist behind Miami Valley Pottery. The Winds Cafe in Yellow Springs serves on some of his plates and he’s worked with the new Mills Park Hotel to create custom flower vases for the dining room.
"You become part of a collaboration with a different discipline, with the world of food, which is in its own sense, very exciting and I hope that other people will hear this and think about it when they go out to eat. They'll think about the potter who made it."
Stocking a whole restaurant with handmade tableware costs more. But increasingly, restaurateurs are seeing the value. Last year another restaurant in Cincinnati that has locations in Indianapolis and Columbus approached Bethany about making dishes for them too.
"So it was pretty easy for me to make that decision from there on, that I would have a stable income from just making pots," says Bathany. "Right now it feels pretty good, it's pretty strong, and I hope it lasts forever, but I’m going to try to ride the wave as long as possible."
It's actually really rare for potters to be able to support themselves without second or third jobs, but the slow food movement in restaurants has started to open up new opportunities for artists looking for self-sufficiency doing what they love.