By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor Published Aug 20, 2014 at 11:04 AM

When you eat at a restaurant, it’s natural to concentrate your attention on the food that’s being served. But, how many times do you pay attention to the dishes on which the food is presented?

If you’re like most people, the dinnerware off of which you’re eating probably doesn’t provoke a second thought. But, for area chefs, the plates and bowls used for serving are an integral part of the dining experience.

"Each chef has his or her own vision on food and how they see it being on the plate," notes Thi Cao, executive chef at Buckley’s Restaurant and Bar, 801 N. Cass St. "Dishes create the canvas on which we present our vision."

And thanks to the skill of local artist, Kate Riley, chefs are better able to customize their canvases to fit the type of food they’re serving.

"Kate made pho bowls for me," says Cao. "They are large ceramic bowls with two slots to place the chopsticks. I met with her to discuss dimensions, style and color scheme which are unique to our restaurant."

Riley, a Glenview, IL native who graduated with a degree in ceramics from the University of Illinois in Springfield, says she’s been making pottery since high school.

"I took my first class in 1994," she says, "Because my sister thought it was cool. It turns out I really loved it, so I continued taking classes all four years in high school."

When she moved to Chicago in 2005, she worked as a teaching assistant in a ceramics lab at Harold Washington Community College, where she worked with ceramics artist, Jessica Bader.

"That’s really where I learned most of my techniques," notes Riley, who says she started out making teapots, bowls and milk jugs, as well as serving dishes.

But, it wasn’t until she met Chef Daniel Jacobs that she really contemplated focusing her work on serving dishes for restaurants.

"I’d been thinking of art over and above function," she tells me. "But, Dan really encouraged me to think about creating pieces that would be useful to chefs – items that were sturdy, durable and could be put in the oven."

For years, she dabbled. But, in 2010, she decided to begin taking her work more seriously.

"It took me a while to find this path," she says. "For some reason, when we moved to Milwaukee I started to get serious. I started selling my work at art fairs and on Etsy. And things started to make more sense. My two favorite things are ceramics and food. And through my business, it all came together."

In 2011, Riley bought a kiln, and two years later she moved into an apartment in Bay View with a studio above the garage. Her first major project for a restaurant was to make beer mugs for 2013 Beer Week, which were used to serve limited-edition taps at Hinterland Erie Street Gastropub in the Third Ward.

Since then, Riley has designed dishes for Buckley’s, c.1880, Hinterland, The National Café, Tochi and Wolf Peach. Odd Duck uses a variety of her dishes and also displays an installation of her bowls on the wall in the restaurant.

"Customization is the main reason for working with me," Riley says. "They come to me with their ideas – and I help to create something that really contributes to the experience they want to give diners."

And Milwaukee chefs aren’t the only ones to seek out rustic, hand-made pottery for their restaurants. The trend of using earthenware plates and bowls in restaurants is sweeping the nation, most notably in cities like San Francisco and Seattle, where Lark is serving some of its dishes on 9-inch slab plates imprinted with a Spanish pig’s hoofprint, and Terra Plata is using chunky white glazed bowls designed by chef/owner Tamara Murphy and thrown by pottery teacher Jamil Cherise.

Rather than serving on standard white glazed plates, restaurants are moving toward neutral tones including grays and soft pastels, plus matte, grainy textures and shapes that aren't always perfectly consistent.

"They’re looking for an organic look and feel," notes Riley. "And the trend is growing. It’s connected to an overall move toward local sustainable food and operations. And the idea is to engage all of the senses when you’re serving food."

Of course, function is also key. Fortunately, says Riley, handmade foodsafe pottery is dishwasher and oven safe meaning that chefs can seek out individual serveware that helps to keep the food warm and crisp, straight from the oven. They’re also looking for pieces specifically designed for the type of food they are serving.

Thomas Hauck, chef and owner of c.1880, who ordered 10.5-inch flat rimmed plates as well as small eight-inch bowls with three-inch rims, says the dishes were designed to his specifications.

"The rim on the plate is important for saucing," says Hauck. "For me, the big thing was that I didn't want a ‘glossy’ finish. Kate was able to do that for us.

"Kate was able to take our idea and make it into something better than we could imagine," he says. "It is also a positive that we can work with someone local who is so talented."

An upcoming collaborative chefs’ dinner at Goodkind, 2457 S. Wentworth Ave., on Sept. 9 will showcase Riley’s work through six courses served on plates, bowls and trays she designed specifically for area chefs.

One such plate, to be used as a cheese board, is in the shape of a clipboard. Another plate is designed with a rough edge that can be used to grate ingredients tableside.

"The idea," says Riley, "Is to give the diners a brand new experience. Each plate or bowl was created specifically for each course … and designed to add to the sensory experience."

Chefs participating in the dinner include Ross Bachhuber and Daniel Jacobs from Odd Duck, Dan Van Rite from Hinterland Erie Street Gastropub, Cole Ersel from Wolf Peach Restaurant, and Paul Zerkel and Lisa Kirkpatrick from Goodkind.

In addition to the serveware used as part of the dinner, other pieces of Riley’s work will be on display and available for purchase by attendees at the event.

Riley says she hopes to coordinate additional dinners in the future, allowing additional chefs to participate and return home with unique pieces for their restaurants.

"I’d love to do a Plate Collective dinner with area female chefs," says Riley, "I think that would be really awesome."

Kate Riley’s ceramic work is available on her Etsy site Craft Girl Studio, as well as at Hometown Established at 130 W. Mineral in Walker’s Point and Fromagination cheese shop in Madison.

Tickets to the Plate Collective Dinner on Tuesday, Sept. 9 are $100 per person, plus tax and gratuity. Each guest will receive a handmade ceramic takeaway item made by Riley.

Seating is very limited and reservations with a credit card are required. Call (773) 612-8017 to reserve your spot.

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.