MaryMar Keenan's plate at The Longboard on Sullivan's Island | Credit: Ruta Smith

More than local food

Imagine finishing a delicious meal from one of Charleston’s restaurants, and as you savor the flavors, you notice something on the plate in front of you: the rim of the plate isn’t smooth all the way around; there’s a small dip on one side, a little bit raised on the other. The plate across from you is the same one, but slightly different; there’s more dips and raises on it than yours.

The plates aren’t technically exact, but perfect in their own way.

These “imperfect creations” could be made in a ceramicist’s small backyard workshop or in a big North Charleston studio shared by a collective of local creatives.

Charleston restaurants are known to prioritize sourcing local ingredients, but some restaurants take their local approach even further, incorporating work from ceramicists and artists into diners’ experiences.

Fiorenzo Berardozzi in his studio | Ruta Smith

It’s what local artist Fiorenzo Berardozzi calls “earth to table.” Berardozzi is a ceramicist and owner of CBFB Tablescapes, a local ceramics company dedicated to working with restaurants and chefs to enhance the dining experience.

Berardozzi became interested in creating pieces for restaurants after a 2008 residency in Japan.

“I was just in awe of going out to a restaurant and seeing handmade ceramics, cutlery, anything dealing with food being used,” he said. “And once I saw that, I was like, ‘This is kind of neat. This is something that I’ve never really thought about.’ Food has always been remarkable. Outside of language, food is culture.”

This endeavor has driven him to be a longtime collaborator with Husk, helping craft unique dishware for the establishment’s chefs.

“I’d rather make something that reflects the chef’s attitude toward food than the food itself,” he said. “When each chef comes in, we sort of try to adapt. It was really hard with [Travis] Grimes because he was part of the whole movement with [Sean] Brock. And so now with [Raymond England] there, we’re revisiting the collection.”

England became the executive chef of Husk in March of this year. Since his new role isn’t tied to the standard of Southern ingredients, he can play around and not be so restrictive, Berardozzi said. “Same thing with the plates.

“I’m not really interested too much in the functionality of [the plates],” he said, “because it’s a plate. A plate is a plate is a plate. The only way a plate becomes interesting is when you use it and when you share it.”

Fiorenzo Berardozzi’s plates at Husk | Ruta Smith

For example, Berardozzi said he once made bowls for chef Jason Stanhope of FIG with an extra dip at the bottom to collect all the juices and sauces of the meal. On the surface, the bowl just had an interesting shape, but it was something Stanhope wanted, he said, so the guests could continue to experience the meal in a different way. The liquids concentrate at the bottom and can then be used to dip from or even sip.

Currently, Berardozzi said he is working on a new plate collection for England that’s a much more modern design than the previous rustic approach. In his process of shaping the plates, he cuts each piece freehand to add a flair of personality, so each dish is unique.

Along with working consistently with Husk, Berardozzi has worked with other establishments around town, including Butcher & Bee, The Daily, FIG and Tavern & Table and more.

Sonny Sisan | Elizabeth Erivin Photography

Other artists in town

Charleston artists Susan Gregory and Sonny Sisan have also worked with chefs to help design a fitting dishware for a space or meal.

Gregory worked with restaurateurs John Zucker, of downtown’s Cru Cafe and the now-closed Purlieu, and Charles Matthew, of the now-closed Scarecrow. Gregory focused on the French concept Zucker wanted to bring with Purlieu, so she used designs of traditional French linens as graphic motifs.

Susan Gregory works with Hotel Emeline to create soap dishes for its rooms | Ruta Smith

She created specific ovalesque plates for Purlieu, which is something you can’t spin on a wheel, she said. The dish was an oblong shape, painted a bright white to match the traditional French style Gregory wanted to achieve.

She sees working with chefs and restaurateurs as a more collaborative endeavor than creating pieces to sell or exhibit.

“I like finding that balance between what they need with the kitchen and with the table when serving and then how to try to make that highly functional but also beautiful,” she said. “I love playing with ideas, and I love conversations that balance between form and function and how it can serve their space.”

Sisan, who’s first collaboration was with Pink Bellies, named Best Restaurant by City Paper readers in 2022, shares that sentiment with Gregory.

Sonny Sisan provides water vessels in shades of pink to Pink Bellies | Ruta Smith

“This was my first project that was going to be used in a space more consistently versus being sold in the store,” he said. “And it was definitely a very thoughtful process … but also really cool and fun to make.”

Sisan’s handiwork can be held in your hands at Pink Bellies. It’s a small, form-fitting pink cup with a conical shape. The circumference of the lip is smaller than the base to trap heat, according to Sisan. The cups were intended for tea, but are also used for water.

The Longboard on Sullivan’s Island uses semi-local artist MaryMar Keenan’s plates. Keenan is currently based out of San Francisco, but still considers herself to be a Charleston local. She’s originally from the area, visits frequently and owns a home in Mount Pleasant, she said.

Keenan’s work was first used in The Longboard’s sister restaurant on St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, according to owner Clint Gaskins. And when plans for The Longboard were in motion, Keenan’s connection to Charleston was part of the reason they continued using her work.

“It was a pretty easy fit,” Gaskins said. “We just utilized a different line that she had that was a little bit more in line with our colors and everything here.”

MaryMar Keenan’s ceramics are used heavily at The Longboard, like the bowls, plates and the coffee and cream sets | Ruta Smith

Art with a purpose

It isn’t just plates and cups that restaurateurs source from local artists. Things like lighting and decorative artwork have ties with the Charleston art community, too.

Kate Towill, co-owner of Basic Projects, worked with several local artists to add personality to her spaces. At Sullivan’s Fish Camp, the old English pub sign at the exterior of the restaurant is the work of island resident Mickey Williams, while the custom lamp shades above the bar were commissioned from Charlestowne Stained Glass Studios.

Photo by Kirk Robert

The lamps above the bar at Fish Camp were designed to display the restaurant’s name in red against bright white glass.

The work of Maria White can be found all around Post House, from the bar and restaurant to the Rose Room and the formal living room. Her spherical luminaries are a bright white porcelain, with deep grooves to illuminate a warm light around the restaurant and bar.

And though the design isn’t unique to Post House, White said, “it just looks completely different in each space.” She described a Los Angeles restaurant using her work with a mid-century motif, whereas Post House embraces a more rustic, classic feel. “It’s interesting to me how different designers use my work.”

Working with artists and craftspeople

Like farmers who spend seasons cultivating and harvesting crops or chefs who spend days creating that perfect dish, artists and craftspeople spend months creating works of art.

“We have the ability to get a one-of-a-kind piece that nobody else can really get,” Gaskins said. “[With Keenan], it’s a production line, but every piece is still going to be unique and designed.
“You can go to the market and get something very bland and boring that you can see in every restaurant, or you can go for something a little bit more unique.”

Maria White hand carves luminaries for the Post House Inn and Restaurant | Ruta Smith

And like the relationships chefs have with farmers, relationships between chefs and artists can be just as valuable. According to Berardozzi, he’s built and maintained relationships with many chefs around the country who want to use his work for a special dish or restaurant.

“I think it really helps esteemed local makers,” White added. “It’s symbiotic. When people see our work, hopefully, they’ll be curious about the maker or be interested in our work. There’s a story behind the object that hopefully will only enhance someone’s experience when they go to a restaurant and are surrounded by local craft. It makes it just that much more special or unique.”

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