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Eat Off This: Custom-Made Restaurant Pottery by Jeremy Ogusky

Welcome back to At the Source, an Eater Boston series exploring where local restaurants get all their stuff, from poultry to plates and fish to forks.

If you've eaten at Bondir, La Brasa, Shojo, or Townsman, among other local restaurants, than chances are you've eaten off of one of Jeremy Ogusky's creations. This local potter has a studio in Needham, and there, he consults with many of the area's chefs about custom pottery for their tables. Eater chatted with Jeremy in the studio about his work with restaurants and other businesses around town.

How long have you been making pottery, and how did you get started?

I've been doing ceramics for 20-plus years, full-time for the past five years. I took a ceramics class in high school; I was kind of a slacker and took the class because I thought it would be easy, and then I just fell in love with it. I continued to do it as a hobby at night, after work, or on the weekends.

I got laid off from a job, and it was pretty difficult for me because I didn't know what I was going to do. My immediate thought was to get back to doing what I was doing, but my wife really encouraged me to think more seriously about doing ceramics professionally.

Did you set out to work with restaurants, or did it just happen?

No, not at all. I love eating and have always been inspired by my own kitchen and my cooking. Now I think I'm more inspired by other people's cooking and their kitchens. It just sort of happened. A few restaurant chefs found me and asked me to make a couple of pieces for their restaurants, and it's just grown from there. I never saw that as a potential market, but it's been really fun. I really like collaborating with professional food people because they have such a high skill level and very specific needs for their work. It's just neat. They'll come to me and say that they need this specific shape, and we just collaborate on it. I prefer to work with others to make things that work for them rather than to just create on my own.

Do you remember the first restaurant you worked with? What was that experience like?

I first worked with Dave Becker. He owns a restaurant out here, Sweet Basil, and then he opened another restaurant in Wellesley called Juniper. He's awesome, and he's also a potter. We were making pots together, and then he asked me to make some plates for his restaurant. Now he uses mostly his own pottery, but I think he still uses some of mine, too.

What's the process of creating pottery for a restaurant like?

It's unique for sure and different for everyone. I like to start by talking with the chef about what types of food they make, and I like to see the restaurant space so I can get a sense of who they are and the work that they do. I then like for them to come out to my studio to see my space and the type of work that I do. If they like my work and I'm interested in what they're doing, then we work from there. Generally I make mostly custom designs. Sometimes someone will like something I've already done but want to tweak it a bit to make it a little wider or a little deeper. Or I'll do a totally new design, which I love. I spend a lot of my time designing and prototyping things.

What are some of the restaurants and places you've worked with, and what specialty items have you done?

I worked with American Provisions in Southie. They sell bulk olive oil there, and they wanted 34-ounce olive oil decanters. They sell them to people, and then they just take them back to fill them back up when they're finished. They also do a lot of charcuterie, so I designed these plates for them, and they serve coffee and espresso, so I made coffee mugs and espresso cups. They liked certain parts from different pieces that I've done, and then I tweaked things for them. They wanted a certain handle and certain size.

On the other side of things, I worked with Matt Jennings of Townsman on plates, and these were ones that I had never done before. He wanted a flat plate and I had never thought about a flat plate before because the type of food that I cook at home is not ideal for a flat plate. But Matt is an artist in his plating, and he sees a flat plate as a palette for his food. When he asked me to make a flat plate, it just was so interesting because I had never thought of that. So I made a bunch of prototypes and lots of different sizes and shapes until we landed on one he liked the best.

I made little tube-shaped bowls for Bondir, and they serve soup out of them. I've also made some things for Woods Hill Table in Concord. They have this awesome bread service; it comes out on this giant wooden board, so I created a little dish for them to bring out a little scoop of lard for the bread. I've also been working with Tim Maslow on some place settings for silverware for Ribelle. He gave me a lot of freedom to create, and I'm still in the process of finalizing things with him. I also made some pitchers for La Brasa. They do a horchata at the bar, and they wanted a pitcher to serve it in.

It must be so rewarding to see your work on these restaurant's tables.

Yes, I really love it. Before I started working with restaurants, I was primarily making things for individuals, which is very rewarding too because you get an immediate reaction from somebody, but I don't really get to see it in action. When a restaurant uses one of my pieces, it's very rewarding because I know that hundreds of people are using it, and it has its own special lifetime.

Do you have any particular pieces that are near and dear to your heart?

I think my style has developed over time, and I think it's really developed outside of ceramics. The type of work that I'm really interested in results from my other interests. I worked in public health for many years, and I have a master's degree in it. I was also a Peace Corps volunteer and I did a lot of work overseas, doing HIV/AIDS work in Africa and Latin America. From all of my work, I learned that I love educating people and teaching the public.

That has inspired a lot of my work with fermentation, and I make fermentation buckets that are great for making kimchi or pickles. They come with a lid that presses things down. I started making them because I'm really interested in fermentation, and now I sell a lot of these, including to Williams-Sonoma, which has really helped my business grow. As more people buy them, they've wanted to learn more about them, which is great.

I started to teach a lot of workshops, and I organized a fermentation festival, which was last September in JP. It was all volunteer-run, and we had over 2,000 people come, which really speaks to fermentation and how it's really having its moment. For me personally, it's great, because it gave me the opportunity to combine all of my passions.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

I get my inspiration from meeting others. It's really exciting to meet new people and to make things for them. I think oftentimes some artists like to make what they want and then try to sell it, but I'd rather work with someone to give them what they need. I never come to the studio and just randomly make things.

Is the majority of your work with restaurants, or can the average Joe still buy your pottery?

I wouldn't say that the majority of my work is with restaurants, but it's an area that is certainly growing. I sell lots of work to individuals still. I do wedding registries for couples, which is really cool, because I like helping come up with a registry that is unique to them, and it's a little more meaningful. I also still do crafts shows, and I partner with chefs doing pop-up restaurants, and I do fermentation dinners. I also do custom work for people and work with other types of businesses like barber shops. I work with one in Davis Square, making bowls for their old-style straight razor shaving. They are also for sale there. I love what I do because I get to work with people whom I never thought I would.

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