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Presentation Is Everything
A local potter does the dishes that chefs love to use.

Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

Soup bowls are tricky. If they’re too shallow, the soup cools too fast. If they’re too deep, diners are forced to bob for crucial components of the dish. What’s a restaurant owner to do? Melissa Buchholz, co-owner of Odd Duck in Bay View, went to local ceramic artist Kate Riley, whose forte is turning out custom pottery for a growing network of local restaurants. Riley came up with a set of cylindrical bowls bearing the image of a duck, a clever touch that diners don’t see until reaching the bottom.

Whimsy is the 33-year-old former Chicagoan’s specialty, and it jibes well with the offbeat restaurant’s off-the-grid take on food. Emphasizing a vessel’s shape and how it affects the way diners experience food is not the mark of mainstream American restaurant-dom, but these are dining establishments that strive to be a bit left of center. To date, Riley’s largest endeavor at a local restaurant has been a wall of 72 airy plates at Odd Duck that are glazed in a black, cobalt and gray doily design. “A lot of times, you pick up plateware, and it’s not what you envisioned,” Buchholz says. “Kate designs it for what you need it to be.”

Married chefs Lisa Kirkpatrick and Paul Zerkel have used Riley’s egg cups for their pop-up Butcher, Baker events. Zerkel is a chef at Odd Duck, and Kirkpatrick is balancing jobs at both Odd Duck and Hinterland, another Riley customer. For a Milwaukee Beer Week event at the Third Ward gastropub, the potter made 50 pint-size mugs imprinted with some funky lettering and the restaurant’s initial. The pieces are “smart and speak to you,” says Kirkpatrick, even as they’re dispensing your beer.

Riley’s marriage to Wolf Peach head chef Daniel Jacobs in 2008 sharpened her interest in functional, food-safe pottery, and it also gave her a client. Wolf Peach uses small oven-safe crocks designed and created by Riley, whose use of high-fired glazing methods keeps the pottery food-protected and impermeable to water. Her output will presumably increase once she and Jacobs move to digs that can accommodate the equipment needed for a potter’s studio, which they plan to do this summer.

“I’m drawn to images,” she says, be they Pee-wee Herman’s silhouette, a lacy pattern of leaves or an octopus. “Once I have that, it just evolves.”

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