By pairing black cod with peaches in an 800-degree kiln, chef Mark Liberman, of former San Francisco restaurant AQ, made the winning dish at last year’s Clay with Your Food. Now in its third year, the “food-meets-performance-art triathlon” takes place once again at Jered’s Pottery in Richmond. The contenders vying for bragging rights this year are Adam Tortosa from Robin, Jeff Russell from Charlie Palmer Steak Napa and Brandon Jew from Mr. Jiu’s. The competition will bring these Bay Area chefs together alongside Jered Nelson, the proprietor and potter known for making high-end restaurant tableware.
Clay with Your Food isn’t just a showcase for Nelson’s artistry. Certainly, the event brings the humble and easily overlooked plate or bowl to the foreground, but it also emphasizes how chefs and potters complement and enhance each other’s disciplines. The three-part event begins with chefs cooking a dish in one of the kilns (this year the temperature will be raised to 1,000 degrees). Then, they have three minutes to make something out of clay on a potter’s wheel. And lastly, Nelson has created a new serving dish for each chef to plate, ecstatically, with food. Nelson — along with his wife, poet Sarah Kobrinsky — have expanded this year’s Clay with Your Food to include readings from local poets.
Jered’s Pottery was originally based in Berkeley, but the studio moved to Richmond in 2015, now situated in the same general vicinity as the Rosie the Riveter Museum. Inside the adobe red storefront, shelves of bowls, pitchers, vases and plates are arranged like so many sculptures in an art gallery. Around the corner, through the workaday kitchen, a hallway connects to an expansive warehouse. It looks like an aspirational potter’s dream studio, an airy, happy place to muddy up your hands and jeans.
To come up with a locally sourced way of making his own line of pottery, Nelson experimented with various combinations of California clays over the course of three to four years. He keeps a record of his old formulas on index cards, a strictly analog approach to archiving. Several large kilns stand at the ready for new batches of plates to heat up and harden.
Nelson honed his pottery skills in his native South Dakota, and then later in the Bay Area at Heath Ceramics. Jered’s Pottery opened in 2010, and Clay with Your Food was soon after born. It was initially Kobrinsky’s idea.
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to do an event?’ to plug into San Francisco Design Week [which kicks off on June 14],” Kobrinsky said. “The first year it was called Clay with Your Food: The Art of Plating. We had two chefs who cooked in the kiln. Then they gave a lecture on what they consider when they’re plating.”
Without dismissing the original concept, Clay with Your Food continues to evolve. Along with more entertaining aspects, it also holds a deeper meaning for Nelson. “When I was in South Dakota, I couldn’t find a community,” he said. “I had built this big wood-fire kiln and I thought, ‘Other potters are going to come and visit me and it’s going to be great.’ Nobody ever showed up. Nobody in the four and half years that I lived there.” The so-called “triathlon” is actually secondary for him. “I love just having other artists in the studio. I learn just as much as anybody else about what I do and what they do.”
One such example is a glazing technique he adapted from Paul Masse, the owner of Masse’s Pastries in Berkeley. Kobrinsky recalled his visit. “He came to the studio one day and made a cake in the kiln,” she said. “Paul was talking about how sugar reacts to heat.” Nelson continued, “He was talking about how sugar is so interesting because you can have it perfect and then you go into a cool room from the kitchen and it’ll crack. I glazed a pot and then sprayed heavily saturated sugar water over the top of it and these glazes, they start to creep.” Unlike on a cake, his application of sugar to clay creates a watercolor effect that expands across the vessel’s surface until it forms a lovely abstract pattern.
The addition of poets this year was Nelson’s idea. Once the final plates are composed, Hugh Behm-Steinberg, MK Chavez and Maw Shein Win will each write on-the-spot odes in praise of the culinary compositions in front of them. And after all these friendly hunger games come to an end, San Francisco’s Namu Gaji will serve Korean street food.