Tabletop Theater

Setting a ‘dining stage’ of quiet drama—East Bay ceramicist Jered Nelson and his distinguished handmade modern plating
Tabletop Theater
Tabletop Theater
Jered Nelson demonstrates how to make a plate at the 'Clay with Your Food' event aimed at chefs.
Tabletop Theater
A table setting uses Jered's Jack and Sarah bowls, named for his son and his wife, and dinner plates—all part of his California line.
Tabletop Theater
Jered works on a plate for the restaurant Spoonbar in Healdsburg.

'500 salad,' the note reads, in inch-high lettering tacked to the wall, not far from Jered Nelson's jiggering machine. '500 dinner,' the next line reads, followed by '30 Jack, 70 Sonja, 20 Calibowls.'

Jered, a one-man factory, gets to work, using his hands, a potter's wheel, and a jigger to produce all these ceramic pieces in just these quantities. And he does it quickly too, 60 to 70 pieces a day, often while antique VHS movies play on a vintage VCR.

He's churning out dinnerware with a personal touch, made by his hand, many named for friends and family. 'Jack,' a bowl that is 'big, open and generous,' is named for his nine-year-old son, who shares those traits, Jered's website says. 'Sonja,' a small bowl, is named after an early mentor as tribute to the 'balance and strength of her forms.'

Jered Nelson, 48, owner of Jered's Pottery in Emeryville, is making a name for himself in a tough trade, where artisans need to distinguish their wares from those of thousands of other ceramicists. Jered, who calls himself an "International Clayboy and Vesselist," does so with a theatrical touch.

While Jered sells dinnerware for family use, takes design industry and corporate commissions, does one-off art pieces and even ceramic walls, about 80 percent of his business is for restaurants, generally high-end places where the chef—and oftentimes, even the pastry chef—gets to choose his or her style of plating.

"Every restaurant wants people to remember them, so they want something a little bit different," Jered says. Dining out, he says, is a form of theater, and the dinnerware is as much a player as the food.

"We have to make it a little more interesting than, 'Here's some food. Eat it,'" says chef Evan Rich, who co-owns the San Francisco restaurant Rich Table with his wife. He uses Jered's dinnerware at Rich Table, and Jered's ceramic tiles at his casual RT Rotisserie restaurants.

While staying true to his own aesthetic—"simplicity, elegance," in the words of poet Sarah Kobrinsky, his wife—Jered creates plates, bowls, and cups designed for multiple uses and with a unique look for each restaurant.

For Michael Chiarello, star chef behind the Spanish restaurant Coqueta on the City's waterfront, Jered incised a bull and toreador on dinner plates. Diners grew so fond of them they began taking them home. The restaurant responded by adding their cost to the offending diners' bills.

For Evan Rich, Jered has not only created unique plates but unique colors—including 'Rich Table Blue,' and more.

"I came in one day in a purple shirt," Rich remembers. "'Hey, can you make me a color that looks like this?'" he asked Jered. "He came up with the Paisley Park color for the [small] bite plates.

"Jered designs plates specifically for certain things. He is designing a bowl with a little hole to hold a fork," Rich says, explaining how he and Jered collaborate. "I see him often and we talk about ideas together, dishes I'm trying to do. 'Oh, cool! Let's try this!' He'll throw things together and show them to me. 'Check this out! What do you think?' "

Under development, Rich says, is a soup bowl that will include a bit of kinetic art.

"It's like a bowl with a channel," Rich says, "where you can plate the garnish in the channel. As the soup rushes down [the channel] it would incorporate the garnish into the soup."

Jered is proud that he makes his ceramics by hand, but he does not eschew the use of tools, like jiggering machines to control shape.

Among his goals were to "make [the plates] stack really close, so I could make them look really cool as they were stacked, so I could put sharp delineations in the plates, so that I could do things like cast shadow up onto the food, or a highlight onto the food. Stuff like that."

All told, Jered has stocked about 30 restaurants, Bay Area, Southern California, and beyond. The variety is broad. "Squares, squares with images, all kinds of shapes and treatments, different glazes," he says.

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