Tarrytown, New York resident Connor McGinn was looking at a career in kitchens when he decided to take a deep breath and reassess. The chef he worked for was “an incredibly impressive human being” who was able to find some semblance of a work life balance – often a rarity in restaurant life – yet as competent as he was, it was still incredibly difficult for him to run a restaurant.
Was that what McGinn wanted for his life?
As he pondered his (pre-coronavirus) future, the opportunity arose to try his hand at something a little different. While thoughts of owning a food truck or being a private chef ran through his mind, the owners of the restaurant he worked at brought him into their office to look at some handmade plates they were considering. McGinn, who had some experience with ceramics, asked for a chance to make the dishes himself.
The rest, as they say, is history.
It wasn’t an instantaneous success, but after splitting his time between bartending and making pottery for restaurants, McGinn had enough interest to go all in on the latter. His company, Connor McGuinn Studios, which he officially started in 2016, now makes ceramics for some of the best restaurants in Westchester County, New York.
What makes his dishes, bowls and serveware special is both his front and back of the house experience and his thought-process. “Everything is really focused on food being the final product,” he said. “When I’m making something, I want to make the best canvas, something that’s going to showcase food in a way where it’s the number one thing, and then the plate or bowl is a background and then a conversation piece. It’s a part of a larger whole and plays a supporting role in the final dish.”
That means pieces where sauce pools in the right places for pasta, flat surfaces that keep complicated dish components separated and rim heights that make it easy for diners to cut through proteins.
Though McGinn started by throwing each piece on the wheel, he soon realized that in order to achieve perfection he was sacrificing personality. He now has a system where he uses a mold so that each piece has the same curvature, which allows them to stack easily and sit evenly on a surface. By hand rolling a slab of clay with messy edges and uneven thickness and using it on the mold, he’s able to combine consistency and hand craftsmanship for a reliably unique collection.
One of the most collaborative pieces he worked on was a hand bowl for the acclaimed Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York. He would bring over all sorts of wacky sample pieces for Chef Dan Barber to choose from, and then customize the items Barber liked best. One result looked like a smooth bowl in a shape similar to an oyster shell on the top, with a perfect imprint of McGinn’s cupped hand, creases and all, on the bottom so that diners could sip from something that fit perfectly in their hands.
“It started out as this clunky, big, stone piece and over probably nine months of making 10 different iterations, of constantly making it thinner and thinner and changing the curvature of it and just a ton of back and forth, I finally was able to get to the final piece.” He said it’s one of the coolest items he’s worked on.
During Covid, McGinn has pivoted to online retail while his client base struggles to stay afloat. He’s gone from making entire dinner sets for large restaurants to selling pieces individually to home consumers who value his craftsmanship. “I still have boxes and boxes of pieces that were ready to go out the door with the name of the restaurant on them,” he said. “When the pandemic hit, I wasn’t going to call up a restaurant and say you ordered these custom pieces, you need to pay me, when they were laying off cooks and servers.”
While it’s been a challenge being tied to an industry he thought would last forever, he’s formed a camaraderie with the other artisans in a Tarrytown studio called Maker’s Central that McGinn founded. Together, they share resources like printers, accountants, customers and ideas. Originally he had wanted his own studio, but for a host of reasons that didn’t work out. Now he’s happy it didn’t. Being with others in a similar boat and witnessing each other’s pivots through hard times has reinforced the knowledge that they’re in it together.
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