At Sweet Basil in Needham, MA, chef Dave Becker has broadened the definition of locally sourced. He makes his own plates and serving dishes for the restaurant, using Massachusetts clay from Sheffield Pottery. In the future, he predicts, knowing the potter who creates a restaurant’s artisanal plates may become as important as knowing the farmer who produced the grass-fed beef.
“Whatever you can do to make yourself unique and stand out will be another level of getting noticed,” Becker says. “I’m surrounded by many great restaurants, and do what I can to be unique.” Sweet Basil’s Italian menu features appetizers such as smoky veal meatballs in marinara sauce with housemade herbed ricotta and crispy kale ($13) and entrees like handmade ravioli in basil marinara sauce ($20).
Becker has been hand-throwing the restaurant’s plates and serving dishes since Sweet Basil opened. “I’ve worked in restaurants my entire life, since I was a little kid. There are so many things to think about with a restaurant—the appropriate price for smelts, the dumpster company. I worry about everything all the time, trying to be better…I wanted to do something with no consequences. I wanted to find something I could consciously suck at. It’s healthy to have hobbies where you don’t try to overachieve.”
Instead of taking up golf or another pursuit, Becker turned to making pottery.
“It’s addictive. I’ve graduated from lopsided ashtrays to actual vessels, making things for the restaurant.” What started out as a hobby evolved into something more: an image-maker.
“In a restaurant, everything from start to finish is an art piece—the flowers you choose, the plant in front of the restaurant, the music you play. It’s not just the food anymore—it’s interesting cocktails, funky single barrel bourbons and ryes that nobody else has. You’re a curator of your own style.”
Becker’s custom designed pottery complements the restaurant’s menu. “The two are not completely unrelated,” he says. “It’s handmade rustic plateware with evidence of tool marks and handprints. The food, like the hand-done ravioli, is not persnickety, either.”
In addition to using local materials requiring minimal transportation, Becker says he also tries to use recycled clay. “I always like to use stuff that has already been considered refuse. If it’s going to get thrown out or be in a landfill, I get protective of it. At the studio where I work, they trim all the scraps off clay and turn it into reworkable clay.” The glazes, too, are recycled from residue wiped off brushes and tools.
Becker says he usually makes 20 to 24 of each plate or bowl design. For practical reasons, stackability is also a big consideration. “You need the same footprint,” he explains. “I make plates in sets for efficiency reasons. I weigh out the clay so they’re all the same weights, with the same glazes. I try not to spend more than five hours a week doing it, but I probably do.” Eventually he hopes to make enough pottery to sell it at reasonable prices to restaurants that want unique pieces.
Sweet Basil’s customers can purchase the custom dinnerware at the restaurant, too. “I have sold quite a bit,” Becker says. “People eat off it, and then ask to buy it.”