Everything in Laurel restaurant is chosen with precise care by chef and owner Nick Elmi. The wall sconces, of mottled brown iron and imperfect glass, were made by sous chef Eddie Konrad. Elmi built each piece of the rustic furniture and painted all the walls a creamy almond. One of the servers provides the fresh flowers that adorn each table.
While the porcelain dinner plates weren't made by the staff, they were made especially for the Passyunk Avenue restaurant to Elmi's exacting specifications by a local ceramics studio, Felt+Fat. There's something about knowing the wares were made "just for us," Elmi said, turning a plate over and running his fingers across the Laurel engraved in the porcelain.
Temple grad Nate Mell and his business partner Wynn Bauer established Felt+Fat with an eye toward a locally sourced niche market: artisan porcelain dishes made with locally produced clay. The pair, who became friends while working at the Clay Studio in Old City, opened Felt+Fat in Port Richmond in fall 2013. Before that, Felt+Fat was just an idea. Mell, a waiter at Fork, asked for Bauer's help in teaming up with chef Eli Kulp and the restaurant's owner, Ellen Yin, to create the perfect wares for their new venture, High Street on Market. Kulp wanted High Street to be imbued with an "element of craftsmanship," inspired by both the region and its producers.
While working with Kulp, Mell realized there was a gap in the market, a perfect place for Felt+Fat to create fully customizable wares for chefs who couldn't find the right plate or bowl in a catalog. With Felt+Fat, a chef can design a plate, see the finished product and say, "ahh, not quite," according to Kulp.
"It's a little bit of a give-and-take," Bauer said of the collaboration with chefs. "But first, we hear them."
Kulp and Yin love to celebrate and feature artisan products, and work hard to find vendors and growers who are "doing something that is very hands-on," Yin said.
"There's been this movement toward more organic-style plating and the plates themselves being made from products from the region," Kulp said. "There's a rich history of ceramics and pottery here, so it all makes sense together."
Mell and Bauer, who both have degrees in art, make the clay and in-house glazes themselves from raw materials with their original recipes. They use a hands-on process called slip casting to make their wares, which involves pouring a liquid clay body into a plaster mold that sucks out moisture. Slip casting doesn't require machinery, but provides consistency in shape and size.
For Elmi, being able to control each small aspect of the plates was crucial. The chef said he saw other companies with a great product, but too frequently found himself saying, "I love this plate, but I wish the slope was 20 percent less, or it was crackled a little more to hold the sauce.
"And that's exactly what you get from Nate," Elmi said. "I like his plates because I specifically designed what I wanted, and that's what I got."
Mell and Bauer count Fork and ReAnimator Coffee as clients in Philadelphia, as well as Torino, a restaurant in Detroit, and Musket Room and Baked in New York City. Whether their wares are in demand due to an obsession with local-sourcing or a drive for perfection, Felt+Fat has found a niche.
Mell is still working a few nights at High Street and Bauer supplements his income with work at the Clay Studio, but both hope their business will continue to grow. The pair are launching a Kickstarter campaign Monday, with a fund-raising event the same day (at ReAnimator Coffee's new location on 310 W. Master St.) to help them purchase new equipment. They hope to eventually sell directly to the public. They have already designed a three-piece place setting for one bride and groom, priced at $125. Individual pieces would range from about $30 to $400, depending on the size, Mell said.
"That's definitely something we want to start working on," Mell said, "and do down the line."
Afterall, they are makers, said Bauer.
"People become attached to things more easily," he said. He gestured to the plates laid out across the long table at his studio.
"These things convince people on their own," he said. "There's a different kind of reward when you're working with things that are handmade and you're putting them in someone else's hands."