At San Francisco’s Coi restaurant, you can order one perfect dish of Andante fresh buffalo milk cheese, with beet, endive, honey, mint and flowers. It arrives as two slabs of creamy white, ringed with a color riot of edible blossoms, resting on a delicately flecked plate, edged with burnt dark brown. The effect is as painterly as it is culinary.
The food was fashioned by Daniel Patterson, considered one of the best chefs in the U.S. The plate, by potter Akiko Graham, who operates out of a humble studio behind a small house in Seattle’s White Center.
“I was throwing before you came,” Graham declares, as she shoves open the entire front wall of her workspace, which she had made into a door, in order to move in 1,000-pound pallets of clay.
It’s in this packed warren — patrolled by an ambling gray cat named Cooper — that the diminutive Graham makes tableware for some of the world’s best chefs.
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Her client list includes some of the Northwest’s finest restaurants — Lark, Crush, Art of the Table, Sitka and Spruce, The Willows Inn — and also some of the best restaurants in the country, or even the world — Coi; Los Gatos, Calif.’s, Manresa; Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in Beverly Hills. The list is long and impressive.
“I know! I chose them,” she exclaims, with a characteristic mixture of enthusiasm, modesty and self-possession. “They understand why they are doing what they are doing. That’s like me. I want to make tableware. They want to make food. They’re not, like, thinking about money.”
Money was certainly the farthest thing from Graham’s mind when she first ventured into ceramics.
A sea change in plating
Graham, 59, grew up in a small fishing village on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. She met her now ex-husband in Sapporo, where he was teaching English, and moved to the States with him.
After having three children, Graham took up potting as a hobby in 1989, taking evening classes at Nathan Hale High School, before beginning to sell her wares at the Fremont Sunday Market.
For a time in the early ’90s, she even kept a shop in Fremont
Eventually, on the advice of a chef friend, she decided to go the direct route. Her sales strategy was simple: Just show up at the restaurant.
“He said I shouldn’t make an appointment,” explained Graham. “Just go between lunch and dinner, so the chef is around, and they are happy to see the pottery. He was right.”
She started peddling her goods door-to-door, but in the ’90s, her dishware seemed out of place at many non-Asian restaurants.
“They were using white plates. White plates are a French cuisine, culinary school thing. You put the food, and you put the sauce around it. So, it was hard for me to sell,” she remembers.
Eventually, though, the aesthetics of the restaurant world began to shift, and her persistence paid off. John Sundstrom, then the chef at Tom Douglas’ Dahlia Lounge, and Holly Smith, chef/owner of Kirkland’s Cafe Juanita, both put in orders.
Coi’s Patterson explains that certain traditions of haute cuisine — “pure white porcelain, bone china, fine filigree” — began to give way to “a more natural feel.”
Blaine Wetzel, chef of the Willows Inn on Lummi Island and 2014 James Beard finalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year, agrees. “In general, there’s been a rise in more natural plating styles and celebration of ingredients that’s happening in the culinary world,” he explains. “Part of that is cooking styles and flavors, sourcing of the ingredients. Another part of that is the aesthetics of the restaurant, the plating styles and the plate itself.”
After doing time at Copenhagen’s Noma, regarded by many as the best restaurant in the world, Wetzel returned to the Northwest to helm Willows, and very soon after sought out Graham.
“I saw how critical it was to be able to determine the shape and size and color and texture of a plate to fit a certain dish,” he goes on. “That is a really important aspect of a fine dining restaurant.”
According to Patterson, social media has also played a part. “I think that in recent years, since Instagram, since the Internet,” he points out, “plating has become more important than it used to be as an element of identity.”
Not ‘a factory’
With an ever-growing number of chefs who feel the same way, Graham’s business has prospered.
“People think that you cannot make money selling just pottery,” she says. “And I think that is true, unless you work a lot. You have to work a lot. Or you have to make a $10,000 art piece.”
She chose the former, often laboring late into the night, making everything from small sake cups to plate sets to presentation platters. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she can render a bowl, for instance, in under three minutes — hunched over her motorized wheel, cradling the wet mound as it spins under her guidance into an elegant vessel.
But even with that initial forming done so quickly, the pieces then have to be dried, fired in the kiln, glazed and fired again. The whole process can take three weeks.
As her popularity has risen, her operation has expanded (relatively speaking) to accommodate the workload. Whereas she once used a rolling pin to flatten the clay slabs for her plates, she now has a large mechanical rolling table. She has upgraded to digitally controlled kilns, and orders the clay by the half-ton. At the moment, she’s rushing to complete a 2,000-piece delivery for a prestigious restaurant she puckishly declines to name. (In addition to her restaurant commissions, Graham also sells to the public through www.akikospottery.com).
Even so, Graham still works largely alone (though she sometimes employs a helper) insisting, “I don’t really want to make too many things. I don’t want to become a factory.”
With that in mind, she still keeps the business personal, often hand-delivering goods in her careworn 1978 Mercedes (license plate, “AKIKO”), and speaking of chefs as much as friends as clients.
“We just kind of forged a relationship,” says Dustin Ronspies, chef/owner of Fremont’s Art of the Table, recalling his first order from Graham. “When she dropped that off, I just commissioned her to do another piece, then another piece. That’s just kind of how our relationship’s been going.
“I’m a farm-to-table restaurant and 95 percent of what we do is done locally, one on one. I thought that was a cool fit, here’s someone making cool pottery. It’s way more personal than going to Ikea and buying a bunch of plates.”
Wetzel points out, “She’s like one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. She’s totally caring, she loves food, and she likes to follow the food world. She keeps track of the comings and goings of chefs and has a personal relationship with a lot of the country’s great chefs.
“The other thing that’s really amazing about her is that she’s quick. Sometimes she gets locked down now that she’s popular, with bigger orders,” explains Wetzel. “But man, she’ll turn around and send you next week your first prototype. And you can say, ‘Yeah, I love it, make 15 more.’ To the point that … if there’s a dish of asparagus or something and I want to do a certain plate with it, many times she can make it while it’s still in season.”
It’s this harmony with the food that the chefs appreciate most.
Sundstrom, who opened Lark restaurant in 2003, remembers when the first of the rare Spanish pork cuts cured as jamon Iberico were made available for sale in the U.S., in 2008. The prized meat, produced from acorn-fed Iberian pigs, is among the most sought-after in the world.
“We had decided we wanted to be one of the first places in Seattle to sell it,” he recalls. “We knew it was coming, so I had her make some, I think they’re probably nine- or ten-inch plates. We did black with this really sort of rusty red color, and we had her put a little hoofprint on each plate. It was a perfect fit.”
As for Patterson, about a year and a half ago he decided to transition to using only Graham’s tableware at Coi.
“In cooking, chefs talk about touch, which is instantly identifiable but irreducible to its constituent components,” he says. “It’s like a brush stroke, or the way someone finishes a piece of wood. It’s something that is theirs and can’t be replicated. It’s distinctive, in a good way. We like Akiko’s touch. Her work just has something that is right, for us.”
Brian Thomas Gallagher: firstname.lastname@example.org