Entertaining

A Time to Kiln

Take a studio tour of chefs' choice potter, Jono Pandolfi
Photos: Katie Foster/Tasting Table
Jono Pandolfi

"This is Mama, Papa, Baby, Fat Boy and Fat Lady," Jono Pandolfi explains, as he pulls hot, mole-hued mugs from the belly of Mama, his very first kiln.

"It looks like peanut butter is all over it," Samantha Murasko, his customer relations manager, says as she comes to Pandolfi's side. "You can't send that to The NoMad."

Yes, that NoMad.

Working out of a charmingly beat-up building on the other side of the Hudson River in quiet Union City, New Jersey, Pandolfi has been quickly making his name as the go-to potter for restaurants, starting with The NoMad. Ever since dreaming up dinnerware for Will Guidara and Daniel Humm when they broke off from Union Square Hospitality Group to open their hit Midtown hotel bar and restaurant, and later take over Eleven Madison Park, Pandolfi's never had a dull moment.

"I joke about it," Pandolfi says. "That we could shut down the website, stop answering the phone, chill for six months or a year, and probably still get calls. People would still be like, 'Hey, can we get plates?'"

A white board hanging by the studio's entrance proves his point: Tom Colicchio (for Fowler and Wells in New York City), Senia in Honolulu, April Bloomfield's Salvation Burger and 15 other big names in the restaurant business fill the painters tape-marked fields. And since that first order of 6,000 pieces for The NoMad's dinnerware back in 2012, Pandolfi's scaled up from just one wheel and a kiln, recruiting a team to sculpt thousands of minimal and sleek-yet-durable pieces and bringing together the whole family of kilns (go behind the scenes of our studio visit below).

Prepping the clay for shaping at Pandolfi's New Jersey studio

Last year, they made more than 30,000 pieces. And this year, Pandolfi can only imagine. ("I don't want to say," he says. "It's going to be a lot.") But just flip over any plate at a trendy New York City restaurant, and you're bound to see Pandolfi's name stamped in big block letters on the back.

It's not exactly what Pandolfi expected he'd be doing after sculpting monumental teapots as a ceramics student at Skidmore College and making small, one-off orders of 40 to 50 vases and jewelry collections on the side.

"I was kind of a jack-of-all-trades, a potter-for-hire type of deal, trying to figure out how to grow the business but also not knowing a lot about growing the business," Pandolfi remembers.

His first big break was actually in jewelry making, a first taste of design success right after Pandolfi moved to New York City. But his foray into restaurants began with his old ska bandmate, Guidara. Pandolfi just wanted to jam like old times and reached out, but that initial conversation led to him making little bud vases for Terrace 5 at MoMA, where Guidara was working at the time. Skip through the bouts of designing for bigger firms, and you land back at that fateful conversation with Guidara and Chef, as Pandolfi reverently refers to Humm, before the big news of The NoMad and the future of EMP.

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"Working with chefs makes my life easier as a designer," Pandolfi says. "Collaborating with them forces me to boil things down and make them really simple and functional, and strip away anything else."

He proudly displays the chefs he works with at trade shows, noting their Michelin stars on his poster board. The beauty of collaboration is what drives Pandolfi, allowing him to squeeze in chefs and restaurant projects here and there as openings stall and delay. And though it seems serene and slow at the studio as Pandolfi's team perches each mug handle one by one, it certainly isn't. He has a bunch of projects lined up: new dinnerware line with Arc Cardinal debuting in the next few months, meetings with ABC Kitchen alum Dan Kluger for designs for his highly anticipated New York City restaurant and moving to a bigger studio within the building.

"We're all about restaurants," Pandolfi says. "You got to bring in new customers, and you got to keep your old customers happy."

Just like chefs.

Find The NoMad here, or in our DINE app.
Find Eleven Madison Park here, or in our DINE app.
Find Salvation Burger here, or in our DINE app.
Find ABC Kitchen here, or in our DINE app.

  • The project of the day at Pandolfi's studio in Union City, New Jersey: coffee cups. Here, mugs are stacked, waiting for handles to be affixed by hand, and Pandolfi sorts through his "blades," plastic pieces for shaping his wares.

  • A neon sign illuminates the sun-drenched space.

  • The Flaming Lips' "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" hums over the speakers, and glazed plates and to-be-glazed bisques are methodically strewn throughout the studio.

  • Ever the conservationist, Pandolfi scrapes up old glaze to reuse. And more small bowls wait their turn in the kiln.

  • What sets Pandolfi apart from other artisan potters is his reliance on a jigger and molds to sculpt his creations, a trade secret.

  • Colorful scissors cover the glazing room, while brushes line the window. "Honestly, my daughter uses them more than me," Pandolfi says with a laugh.

  • Five kilns, ranging in temperatures of 1,800 to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit, set the pace of making all the pottery.

  • Known (sort of adorably) as "kiln furniture," these rubbery stands space out the shelves of products firing in the kiln.

  • "It's just money in the bank," Pandolfi says, as he points out the piles of unfired bisques.

  • One of Pandolfi's assistants carefully cuts into the spinning clay to make a mug.

  • No matter what, the cups are always made in-house, not outsourced. Here, the assistant attaches the handles to the naked mugs.

  • A tree of branding stamps, which are plucked at to stamp the bottom of these plates, sits on the worktable.

  • Arguably the cutest member of the studio, Pendleton scurries about and makes friends with other dogs in the building.

  • Inside the glazing room, there are stacks of the finished products.

  • Pandolfi inspects his wares fresh out of the kiln, checking for consistency in hue for the mug and sheen with the plates.

  • What it's like to work from Pandolfi's perch.

  • "It's actually very accurate," Pandolfi says of his handmade crossbow. Made during his downtime working on dinnerware for The NoMad, it also has a laser sight line but gets significantly less time nailing beer cans these days.

  • A look inside Fat Boy, the squat square kiln, and an array of leftover plates.

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