The Chef & Her Potters
East Fork Pottery in Asheville, NC, is chef Vivian Howard's go-to destination for hand-crafted dinnerware. See how the husband-and-wife team behind this operation has built one of the country's most exciting ceramics workshops in the South.
Potter Alex Matisse and his crew at East Fork Pottery in Asheville, NC, supply Chef & the Farmer with some of restaurateur Vivian Howard's most beloved pieces. (We featured Vivian in our November issue story "Home Again.") The pottery was founded in 2010. Today Alex and his wife Connie Matisse (assisted by daughters Vita and Lucia, business partner John Vigeland, and their growing team) have created a must-visit destination for pottery enthusiasts. Here, we sit down with Connie to learn more about East Fork.
How would you describe East Fork's aesthetic?
East Fork is timeless, simple, and beautiful.See More Behind-the-Scenes Stories from BH&G Experts
You met Alex while working on a North Carolina goat farm. What made you stay in North Carolina and not pursue the Peace Corps as you intended?
I left New York in 2008, when the financial crisis caused the nonprofits I was working with to shutter their doors overnight. I thought a stint at the goat farm was going to be one of several stops on my way back up to New York, where I'd ultimately planned on ending up. I thought for sure I'd hang with a writerly crowd up there. But one day, while I was selling goat cheese at the local holiday market, I met Alex. I moved in two months later. That was nine years ago. I never made it back to New York.
What was your role in building East Fork Pottery—the kiln, the workshops, and the website?
When I first moved in with Alex, there was no kiln and no workshop—just a dusty, creaky little farmhouse filled with ghosts. But Alex had big plans for the place and I was in love, so I went along for the ride. I laid bricks for the big wood kiln, planted a big garden, helped with glaze mixing, manned the booth at craft shows, took some photos, wrote the newsletters—but it was primarily a one-man show. I still thought I was going to find something completely un-pottery-related to do with myself. I managed restaurants, poured drinks, and went to graduate school for Clinical Mental Health Studies. It took until 2015 before I realized Alex, East Fork, and I would all be better off if I committed myself to the family business.
Now, with the support of an awesome sales and creative team, I write our newsletters, come up with new forms and glaze colors, run our social media, manage our partnerships, oversee the retail buying for our store, take a lot of photographs, and do all sorts of other little, unsexy tasks that go into getting pottery from the workshop to your table. It always cracks us up when people come into the store and ask our awesome sales staff it they've made all of the hundreds of pieces of pottery on the shelves. It really does take a village, and we're lucky to have a great one.Meet Dream Weaver Erin Barrett, Another Maker Featured in Our September Issue
What was the initial concept? How has it evolved since then?
Oof, that's a doozy! Alex was trained in traditional ceramic apprenticeships under North Carolina potters Matt Jones and Mark Hewitt. When he left the workshops of his teachers and started out on his own, he, like any other potter who learns through apprenticeship, made pots that very much resembled his teacher's pots. They were fired in a large, wood-burning kiln known in potters' circles as an anagama style. East Fork's early pots were strongly rooted in the Hamada-Leach-Cardew lineage because of Alex's apprenticeship. John [Vigeland, East Fork's business partner] came from the same lineage.
When John joined us in 2012, we had no idea which direction we would be heading in—we just knew we wanted to do something that was going to connect us to a large community, and that we could grow and share with other people. The changes to our business happened so organically. I've always worked in restaurants and have a deep reverence for dining, and I think our desire to make a functional, beautiful, but pared-down dinnerware collection came largely from that. John turned out to be an absolute magician with the books—he's in charge of showing us how we can responsibly finance all the wild ideas that Alex and I cook up in bed at 2 am. And Alex has really blossomed in his new leadership role—he's incredible at building meaningful relationships with our community, our investors, and our vendors. His plans for East Fork seem to grow every day.
This spring we'll open a small factory in downtown Asheville, where we plan to employ 30 or so people by the end of next year. Now, we see East Fork as both a designer and manufacturer of lasting ceramic dinnerware and a great place to work; a container for building community, celebrating material culture, and showcasing work in other mediums made with integrity; and an example of how businesses can engage with their customers and community in a more holistic, human-centered way.
East Fork Pottery is part of several food-industry collaborations. Tell us more about those partnerships. What restaurants/chefs do you work with?
Oh, if only we had the time we'd be doing so much more of this! Working with restaurants is a passion project for me. Prior to jumping on the East Fork train my entire world was food and beverage, so working with chefs and restaurateurs is such an engaging process. Regionally, Table, The Montford, Cucina 24, Nightbell Curate, Husk, and Gan Shan Station use our dinnerware. Our work is also in restaurants in Toronto, Dubai, and New York. Because everything is currently being hand thrown, we aren't able to take on all the restaurant projects that we'd like to, but by next spring we'll be wide open for business and able to offer wholesale pricing to restaurants.Read More About Southern Cooking in Our Interview with Scott Peacock
How do you come up with the final design for each restaurant/collaborator? Tell us about that process.
This really depends on the chef. Some are just keen to use whatever we have available; others want to be involved in the process. With Katie Button at Curate, she and her husband, Felix, who manages front of house, came out to the workshop and together we developed a plate just right for tapas and three custom glazes to match the earthy tones of their food and decor. We made custom ramen bowls for Patrick O'Cain at Gan Shan Station (where we eat at least two times a week), and gorgeous wide-rimmed pasta bowls for Brian Canipelli at Cucina 24, our absolute favorite restaurant in town.
Why do you think so many restaurants are seeking out East Fork Pottery? What makes you different from other dinnerware suppliers?
There are very few workshops in the country who make a full range of dinnerware that can be stacked high in bus bins, put through a commercial dishwasher, and look consistent from plate to plate but still have the grounding quality of something handmade. Our glaze colors are simple but rich and provide an uncluttered canvas for food. When Brian Canipelli started plating on East Fork at Cucina 24, he told us that his "food had finally found a home." Alex and I both teared up.
You and your husband also opened a retail space to sell your craft on a larger scale. What prompted that decision?
First, the work looks so much better on our beautiful, pickled ash shelves than it does in our dusty workshop! We wanted our customers to be able to see the dinnerware in its full glory—with nice lighting, set on a lovely table, with consciously sourced linens and flatware and glassware to complement it. Alex and I are both very particular about the objects we surround ourselves with; we believe that the objects we use day in and day out—to make coffee, pour wine, serve pasta—should be a pleasure to use and to look at. So in addition to selling our pottery, we sell traditional Japanese donabe, handwoven willow baskets made in Madison County, wood bowls from a centuries-old Michigan bowl mill, and so much more. It's such a joy being able to bring really special objects to Asheville for the first time. I get especially excited about the jewelry we sell—we're currently carrying pieces from Luiny, Erin Diane, and Paola Vilas.
Are your customers mostly locals, or do you receive orders from chefs and homeowners all over?
Right now our sales are split down the middle. We sell about half of our pots to people who walk into our shop and the other half to people across the country and as far as Australia and Japan through our website (eastforkpottery.com). New Yorkers are far and away our most frequent customers. (We love you, New York!)
How do people outside North Carolina find East Fork? Is it through magazine write-ups? Search? Other restaurant owners?
Right now most of our out-of-state customers find us through Instagram, where we have a very engaged following. As we move into the new factory space and get ready to do a big national launch, we're hoping we can land more print write-ups, just like this one :)
You're friends with owner and chef of Chef & the Farmer Vivian Howard. How did that relationship begin?
We met Vivian and Ben at an art opening at the Buy Local gallery in Kinston, North Carolina, where Alex and Ben, a painter, were both showing work. Our paths have crossed several times now, but we haven't actually had a good chance to get to know each other yet!
Vivian is very fond of your dinnerware, which is in our November issue. What's your favorite dish from her restaurants?
I of course love how Vivian's menus are always changing and how firmly committed she is to showcasing everything North Carolina has to offer. We ate at Chef & the Farmer in late summer, when Vita was just two months old, and I had an exquisite dish of North Carolina flounder and sweet corn. I remember a really special tomato jam, too.Learn More About Chef Vivian Howard and Her Restaurants
You've said that you'd like to eventually open your own restaurant using all East Fork products. Can we look forward to that sometime next year?
Probably not in 2018, because we'll be too busy opening two new stores: Atlanta in the summer and a pop-up in New York in the fall (fingers crossed!). But we absolutely have a restaurant inside us. We'll start thinking about that once both of our girls are sleeping through the night.
Thank you, Connie!
Learn more about East Fork Pottery at eastforkpottery.com.See the Latest Issue of BH&G in Our Archive—Available Only to Insiders!