Meet the Sous Chef-Turned-Potter Making Custom Dinnerware for Top Restaurants
By Courtney Schiessl
When Connor McGinn, then a sous chef at the now-closed Restaurant North in Armonk, New York, was asked for an opinion on samples of handmade plates for the owners’ new venture in 2015, a lightbulb clicked on in his head. “I’ve done this before,” he thought, recalling elective ceramics classes he had taken during college.
That spark of inspiration would lead to a new career path for McGinn, who soon transitioned away from working in restaurants to hone his pottery skills. While McGinn might still pick up a shift or two as a favor to former employers, he helms Connor McGinn Studios full-time, where he specializes in creating custom dinnerware for restaurants like Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Goosefeather, both in Westchester County, as well as Goodman’s in the Manhattan Bergdorf Goodman men’s store. Fueled by the desire to help restaurants tell stories through every aspect of the restaurant — from the food to the plates — McGinn is now helping other restaurant-focused artisans do the same with community studio Makers Central in Tarrytown.
McGinn never intended to be a potter nor a restaurant professional; rather, he studied business and marketing at Chapman University in Orange, California. But as a reprieve from courses like statistics and economics, McGinn also took ceramics classes. After graduating, he joined the Peace Corps as a small business development advisor in rural, underdeveloped areas, helping artisans and farmers operate their businesses.
Two years later, McGinn decided to follow a passion for cooking, landing at Restaurant North in 2013 to work under chef-owner Eric Gabrynowicz and co-owner Stephen Mancini in both front-of-house and back-of-house positions. After working his way up and eventually being promoted to sous chef, McGinn found himself offering to craft handmade plates for Gabrynowicz and Mancini’s new restaurant — and the duo was willing to give him a shot.
“I screwed up a whole bunch of times,” says McGinn, “but they — knowing my work ethic from working in the kitchen — were willing to push through that with me.” Even as he took a step back from restaurants to spend more time making plates, working out of a small shared studio in Portchester, McGinn picked up bartending shifts at The Twisted Oak in Tarrytown — and began making dinnerware for the team there, too.
Slowly, word spread, and after making pieces for a handful of other restaurants in the area, McGinn caught the attention of the team at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. “These guys really know what they’re talking about, and they like my stuff,” he recalls thinking. “That gave me the confidence to say, ‘there’s something here.’” McGinn soon began looking for his own studio space, and began moving into the spot that would become Makers Central in 2018.
Though the foundation of McGinn’s business is built on custom crafting — whether that’s for a restaurant or as a full set for a wedding registry or home — the plates, bowls, serving platters, and other dinnerware from Connor McGinn Studios share a common aesthetic. Slightly uneven shapes and organic edges give the pieces an intentionally rustic, handmade edge. “If a restaurant is going to spend the time and money to choose handmade plates,” says McGinn, “they need something that’s going to pass that value along to the customer. So I try to make sure that it’s visibly handmade and unique without being too messy and rough.”
The custom design process typically starts with a conversation about quantity, style, and timeline. By meeting at the studio or the restaurant, clients can see and feel existing pieces of dinnerware and decide whether to build their sets off of an existing design or go completely custom. (For custom pieces like this, which requires a lengthy design process, McGinn charges a design fee, but he tries to keep it reasonable given that he understands staying within restaurant budgets.) To get a feel for the client’s aesthetic, McGinn usually dines at the restaurant to fully understand the experience, or for new spots, he gains context through photos and materials. McGinn might sketch and produce 10 to 30 different versions of a new piece before presenting his top five or six to the client.
The Connor McGinn Studios team is also setting up a full online marketplace that will allow individuals to select from a ready-made inventory, noting their preferred color, and the team will glaze pieces to order. “We will be able to sell those online and have that process work somewhat hands-off so I can focus more of my time making custom-designed pieces for restaurants,” says McGinn. “That really is the core of the business: working with restaurants.”
McGinn’s background in the industry allows him to better communicate with restaurant clients throughout the design process. “Being able to speak that [restaurant] language is a huge reassurance for chefs,” he says. “If you’re dealing with an artist or potter, it’s a totally different world and a totally different set of expectations, timelines, and language.” Understanding the needs of both the kitchen and the dining room allows McGinn to ensure that the pieces are both aesthetically pleasing and functional; the dinnerware is stackable, dishwasher-safe, durable, and designed so that a server can pick pieces up easily.
Given the availability and array of factory-made dinnerware scaled for restaurants, why would a restaurant team choose to undertake the time and expense of opting for custom, handmade dinnerware? McGinn feels that the move towards handcrafted items is in line with the farm-to-table view of hospitality as a whole.
“When you go to a restaurant, of course you’re paying for the food, but you’re also paying for the experience,” he says. “The level of quality is so high across the board that restaurants have to figure out a way to differentiate themselves and tell a deeper, more meaningful story to their diners.” Just as restaurants often now tell stories to diners by communicating the farm where the chickens were raised, the producer who made a specific wine, or (in the case of Blue Hill at Stone Barns) the name of the cow from which the butter was made, they also use handmade plates and bowls to tell a story as well.
Whether a restaurant tells that story through intriguing, uniquely-shaped pieces or more standard ones that still have unique edges and glaze effects, the dinnerware itself serves to elevate the experience for guests. Tying all of those stories together through dinnerware is also important because these pieces serve to connect the restaurant team members, in a way. “The plate is the one thing that is tied to both front-of-house and back-of-house,” says McGinn, “the one thing that the cooks touch and the server touches. To have a chef choose that as carefully as he chooses the microgreens he puts on top of the dish is becoming more and more important.”
This holistic view of hospitality is shared by the artisans at Makers Central, which is home to five different maker businesses, including McGinn. When McGinn first found the studio space in Tarrytown, he realized that it was far bigger than what he personally needed. Instead of passing on the space, he saw it as an opportunity to build and support a community of restaurant-focused makers out of a single studio.
“I realized I could create a space where I could bring in other makers and not just give them physical space,” says McGinn, who moved into the space in December 2018. “To have that artistic drive to make your own things takes a certain energy, and then you have to shift it to the other side of the brain and focus on the business side.” Not only does each maker have access to his or her individual space and all communal spaces, including a kitchen, but the makers all have access to a network of business services professionals, from bookkeepers and lawyers to graphic designers and web developers.
The goal was to find makers who have restaurant backgrounds and create handmade goods geared towards restaurants, but whose businesses don’t conflict with one another. “It is much more of a rising tide atmosphere than a negatively competitive atmosphere,” says McGinn.
Among the makers, who moved into the space in June 2019, are two woodworking businesses: C-los Carpentry, helmed by partners Carlos Chimborazo and Elena Krougliak, who refinish table tops for restaurants like Cosme and work with spots like Crown Shy and Blue Hill to create handmade pieces like drinks and service trays; and Wood Fire Food from Dan Sabia, a chef who hosts outdoor, open-fire events and also creates reclaimed wood cutting boards. Makers Central is also home to Yazel Knives, the project of bladesmith Matt Yazel, who had never sold one of his handmade Damascus steel knives before launching his business at Makers. Rounding out the group is Bat Flower Press, where printmaker Natalia Woodward prints menus, stationary, and invitations on an antique printing press and makes her own paper from recycled scraps.
Makers Central hosts quarterly events (the next will be held on May 9 as a Mother’s Day celebration), and the makers cook family meal together once each month to share food and discussion. “It’s a much bigger community, rather than just a space where you come in and work every once in awhile,” says McGinn. The makers often help one another problem-solve, and they may even share clients.
Interestingly, McGinn’s experience with his eponymous studio and Makers Central draws many parallels from his time spent working with small artisans while in the Peace Corps, and of course, he remains involved in the restaurant community even though he rarely picks up shifts behind the bar anymore. “It’s strange how that has come full circle,” he reflects. “Retrospectively, it seems like all the things I’ve done in the past have all added up to perfectly fit what I’m doing right now.”