Up until recently white porcelain plates have been the standard in most higher-end eating establishments. Chefs used these white spaces as open canvases for presenting their artistry across a blank page.
Over the last few years, however, there has been a distinct shift toward more ceramic creations, hand-formed dinnerware made in various shapes and colors. Part of this trend comes from innovative Napa Valley restaurants, such as Meadowood, that utilize a few select local artisan pottery-makers, including NBC Pottery in Angwin.
“Ceramists Nikki and William Callnan [owners of NBC Pottery] came to visit us at the restaurant one day, having heard about our interest in collaborating with artisans in the valley,” wrote three-star-Michelin Chef Christopher Kostow in his “A New Napa Cuisine” cookbook.
“On that first visit they carried boxes dirtied with dried clay and overflowing with newspaper packing material. Seeing their brown earth bowl on our dining table, a compelling juxtaposition between linen and stone, completely upended my conception of elegance. We have been a different restaurant ever since.”
That a bowl could influence the direction of one of the top-rated restaurants in the world is certainly a statement about the culinary ecosystem of place and the importance of not only the eating establishment itself but also all those other elements that go into making the meal: the wine, food and its farmers, the many hands that prepare, plate and present the food.
“We are thrilled to have been working with the team at Meadowood for a while now,” said Nikki Ballere Callnan, ceramic artist, art educator and co-owner of NBC Pottery. “I have been making ceramics for over 23 years, and my motto has always been to keep one hand in the dirt.”
Although they met at Sierra Nevada College, studying ceramic and art, the Callnans had moved to Massachusetts to continue school and for work, eventually returning to the Napa Valley in part to work with local master ceramic artist Richard Carter, whose work adorns many collections around the world, including the di Rosa in Carneros.
But in 2011, the year NBC started working with Meadowood, the Callnans were struggling to balance their passion for making ceramics with the economic realities of starting a family. Nikki had gone back to graduate school and Will was helping keep things afloat. But then their situation changed.
“We got an email from Meadowood,” Nikki said. “They said they liked our work and wanted to check it out.”
“We really believed that our work would fit in so well with what they were doing up there,” Will said. “We had a ceramist friend that had been working with them for years, and sometimes he called us up and asked if he could use our kiln, saying, ‘The chef needs this right now,’ and the work was similar to the kind of stuff we were doing, too.”
When they finally met Kostow at Meadowood they felt even more synergy, so they got right to work.
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“We heard Christopher’s vision, and what he wanted was a perfect fit with our work,” Nikki said. “He’d say, ‘I want to do a dish like this,’ and then we’d say, ‘Sure, we can do that.’”
“It was exciting, fun and collaborative to work with them,” Will said. “And then we started working with Nathaniel a lot, too, which is how we came up with the coffee service. So we were in the back of the house (plates and bowls) and in the front of the house (coffee service), which was amazing.”
“I have been working with Will and Nikki on our coffee service, which is unique to anything else people have seen in the Napa Valley,” said Meadowood’s front-of-the-house director, Nathaniel Dorn. “We’re also excited for people to see what we have planned for the Charter Oak when it opens early next year.”
Dorn was referring to his and Kostow’s yet-to-open new restaurant, the Charter Oak, a less-formal dining establishment than Meadowood that will open sometime in 2017 in what was the old Tra Vigna in downtown St. Helena.
“NBC Pottery has been one of the local artisans we have collaborated with in bringing our concepts and designs to fruition,” Dorn said. “Not only do they produce great work, but it’s been meaningful to have a partnership with two individuals who are invested in our community, specifically with their involvement in Nimbus.”
Nimbus Arts is a community-owned nonprofit organization founded in 2005 with the mission of giving the Napa Valley community access to art. In addition to their on-site classes and camps, open studios and lectures they offer free public events, community service programs, classes in public and private schools, and collaborative art projects throughout Napa County. Both Nikki and Will have been involved as instructors and contributors to Nimbus since its inception.
“Nikki was one of the first artists I hired to teach at Nimbus, with Will coming on shortly after,” said Jamie Graff, executive director and co-founder of Nimbus Arts. “Their passion and dedication, growing their vision as artists, their beautifully designed ceramics and the love they pour into it all over the years has been so inspiring to watch. When you have the opportunity to work with the same group of artists for over 10 years it’s so exciting to see their ideas, artistry and lives grow and touch so many people.”
“It is gratifying to see our work having an impact,” Will said. “We have been working hard for decades, sometimes not knowing we were on the right track. But we just kept going, believing that someday we might find our place. Now I think we’ve found it.”
NBC will be holding its annual Holiday Studio sale on Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 3 and 4, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at their studio in Angwin, where they’ll have all their inventory on sale, along with food and drinks. The event will also include live music by flamenco guitarist Chris Vorland.
More information can be found on the NBC Pottery website at www.nbcpottery.com.
“Seeing their brown earth bowl on our dining table, a compelling juxtaposition between linen and stone, completely upended my conception of elegance. We have been a different restaurant ever since.” Christopher Kostow, “A New Napa Cuisine”