Most often, a plate is little more than a solid foundation upon which a dish rests, fading into the background so as not to distract. And yet, in the right setting, the right plate can become just as much a part of the dining experience as the food itself. It’s a delicate balance between understated design and attention-commanding details, and no one does it better than Jono Pandolfi. Most people who have eaten off of a Jono Pandolfi plate would never know it. And yet, since 2004, he has slowly risen to become one of the most seminal ceramicists in America, making a name for himself as the go-to purveyor of dinnerware for some of New York’s best restaurants, including Eleven Madison Park — which many critics consider to be the foremost dining establishment in the United States.
About 12 years ago, Daniel Humm, chef and co-owner of Eleven Madison Park and the NoMad, saw Pandolfi’s work and ordered a few plates. A few plates turned into all of the dinnerware for his then yet-to-be-opened restaurant, the NoMad — an order of more than 6,000 pieces. After the NoMad came dinnerware for Humm’s other restaurant, the superlative Eleven Madison Park. “That was the one-two punch that got me up and running,” Pandolfi said.
“Doing a project like that pushed me as a designer, pushed me as a businessman, pushed me as a potter, pushed me in every way.”
More than getting his business off the ground, working with Eleven Madison Park challenged Pandolfi’s business operations. Whereas his collaboration with the NoMad consisted of 10 styles, Eleven Madison Park claims upwards of 50 proprietary silhouettes. “We’ve done 300 percent more custom, special treatments for [Eleven Madison Park] than we’ve even thought about doing for anyone else,” Pandolfi said. “Doing a project like that pushed me as a designer, pushed me as a businessman, pushed me as a potter, pushed me in every way. That took me to a place where I never thought I’d go, and it has a lot to do with the amount of trust [the Eleven Madison Park team] put in me.”
At Jono Pandolfi’s studio, clay is de-aired (pugged) and rolled out into inch-thick sheets before being cut with a tracing tool, placed into a mold, and formed with a jigger on a pottery wheel. The clay is then left to dry and bisque fired at 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, solidifying the form and suffusing it with a terra cotta hue. The fired piece is then glazed by hand — often by Pandolfi, himself — and left to dry. A second firing at 2200 degrees Fahrenheit finishes the piece, darkening the clay body, vitrifying it and rendering it less porous (so as to be food-safe).
Pandolfi’s business is built on fully custom, handmade dinnerware for restaurants and hotels, designed to meet the individual needs and requests of each brand. Delivering visually uniform, consistently high-quality products is of utmost importance, and has been integral to his ability to attract new clients, arguably more so than his ability to fulfill an order on time. “What I did for Eleven Madison Park, what I did for the NoMad, what I’ve done for Chef’s Club, what I’ve done for The Musket Room, what I’ve done for Aquavit, what I’ve done for anybody — I have to give that same exact treatment to everyone who calls us, whether it’s a Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco or a casino in Michigan,” Pandolfi said. “And I feel good about that. That’s why my brand gets the respect that it does.”
Slow and steady growth has been the key to Pandolfi’s consistent, high-quality output — never scaling too rapidly, staying true to what he knows works, and responding to what draws customers to his studio in the first place. “We have a really efficient process and we let that dictate how we do things,” he explained. “We make a lot, and we know what works and what doesn’t, and we shy away from things that are going to hurt our yield,” like unrealistic deadlines and labor-intensive custom silhouettes.
In many ways, Pandolfi benefits from having begun as a restaurant-first business. “Once I made it my mission to work with restaurants, that helped, because it really gives [clients] more faith in me,” he said, alluding to the necessity of a consistent and durable output, as well as an understanding of individual expectations surrounding the role of dinnerware in a meal — whether it’s an essential part of a plated dish or serving as the background. “[We look for] beauty, durability, and a uniqueness [in our dinnerware],” said Will Guidara, restaurateur and co-owner of Eleven Madison Park and the NoMad. “That’s why I love working with Jono…. Every detail matters. If you put just as much thought into the plates as the food you serve on them, the guest can feel it.”
The factors that have allowed Jono Pandolfi to succeed thus far, the teachable moments and challenges overcome, are now laying the foundation for what’s to come. His business has been self-sustaining. He’s never advertised his work, and yet he continues to field a steady stream of high-profile clients. His team has grown to include four full-time ceramicists and his studio now boasts five electric kilns. Process-wise, he has his art down to a science. Business has been good — better than good — but Pandolfi is looking for something more.
Fully custom, handmade ceramics require advanced planning — a lead time of several months to a full year, depending on the scope of the project. Clients who have worked with Pandolfi before and who understand his process recognize this and are often able to plan accordingly. But the time- and labor-intensive nature of his process means that he often misses out on clients with tight deadlines. This increased demand among non-hospitality clients (in other words, ordinary people) is setting a change in motion. “We want to get to a place where we have our amazing, special, custom capabilities, and then we also have dinnerware in stock for clients who are opening in two weeks,” he said. “We want to get away from being exclusively made-to-order.”
In many ways, scaling up and getting products into homes will be more of the same.
The studio’s average output is 150 finished pieces daily, running all five kilns at maximum capacity throughout the year, weekends included. Load, fire, cool, unload, reload, repeat. And while Pandolfi’s process is standardized, it still takes time: three days to complete a single piece, beginning with measuring and molding, continuing onto drying and bisque firing, and finally, glazing and glaze firing. While indisputably handsome, his signature style — minimal with rustic undertones, marked by dark stoneware bodies and hand-glazed (usually white) interiors — is rooted in function. “[Our need for efficiency] dictates our aesthetic, too. The fact that our dinner plates are left unglazed on the back — it doesn’t just look cool, it’s actually easier to make that way,” Pandolfi mused.
In many ways, scaling up and getting products into homes will mean more of the same. His wares have been tested by restaurant kitchens, both in quality and durability, and far exceed the needs of the average home cook. In the more than 10 years since his dishes first appeared at the NoMad, he’s built up a roster of 50 different styles of plates, bowls, mugs and more. Strengthening the retail branch of his business, then, will require little more than increased production. Pandolfi won’t need to reinvent the wheel; he’ll just keep the wheels turning and kilns firing like he has for over a decade.