FOOD & DRINK

Work Live Love

How two couples from neighboring wine valleys found common ground in artistic collaboration

by Lisa Mattson

There are couples who fall in love at work, and then there are couples who stay in love at work—those who thrive off working together as a team at home and on the job. Workplace romances are most common in the hospitality and tourism industry, where 62 percent of workers say they’ve gotten romantic with a coworker, according to a recent study. That’s how the husband-wife team in Jordan’s kitchen—Todd and Nitsa Knoll—fell in love back in 1999 while working at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco. Their workplace romance blossomed into a partnership where the two artists can share their creative passions every day at Jordan—he, cooking and she, designing events and florals.

They’ve met other artistic power couples and formed bonds over the years, such as Kyle and Katina Connaughton of SingleThread Farm Restaurant & Inn and Scott and Donna Sievers from Pineapple Planet, a local event design company.

Shopping trips for service ware, vases and other artistic pieces for their home and work led to them finding kindred spirits in a Napa Valley couple who make hand-crafted pottery for some of the country’s best restaurants and hotels.

Ceramic artists Nikki and Will Callnan create some of the most sought-after ceramic pieces in the world of fine dining at NBC Pottery, their burgeoning studio on Howell Mountain, high in the hills above St. Helena, Calif. Their work can be found at The French Laundry, The Restaurant at Meadowood, The Charter Oak, the new Four Seasons Resort and Residencies in Napa Valley and many other elegant establishments. Starting this spring, their work will be at Jordan, too.

Wine Country Table recently sat down with the two creative couples—the Knolls and the Callnans—to discuss how the partnership came to be, and how the end result embodies a new approach to terroir.

How did you four meet?

Nitsa Knoll: We’ve known Will and Nikki for a while. Todd and I have been going to their holiday sales event at the studio for years. It was an easy connection for us. Not only do I love their work from a design aspect, but I love how they run their business—hospitality is interwoven with family. They’re a husband and wife team with a workshop behind their home. There’s an outdoor dining table right between the two buildings. Their children play in the yard while they take turns at work. Our son played fetch with their dog during the open house. They poured hot apple cider for all the guests who came to the party. It made an impression. Jordan is such a huge part of who we are, no matter what we do or where we go, we are still working, thinking of Jordan. Whenever we go anywhere in the world, we always think, ‘How can I bring this to Jordan?’ I remember we thought that the first few times we came to the studio.

Todd Knoll: Of course, the product made an impression, too. The ceramics have to complement the food they hold. I think of my food as grounded in the natural, so it lends itself to ceramics that have an organic look. Whenever I walk through the NBC Pottery Studio, the eclectic, perfectly crafted work speaks to me. It is a chef’s call to action.

How was the Jordan ceramics project born?

Todd Knoll: I thought we could use a piece at Jordan that was the ultimate expression of our terroir—if ceramics are composed of clay and there’s clay in our soil, why not incorporate some of that clay into the ceramics? I couldn’t think of any culinary experience more connected to the land than eating vegetables from Jordan’s garden on a plate that was made from clay in the soil in which those ingredients were grown. But it wasn’t guaranteed we could do it. We needed the right kind of soil, the right kind of clay. I knew Will was very knowledgeable about clay composition and about what was going to work and what would not. We hiked across Jordan Estate and dug promising clay samples from four different spots. There is a creek bed near John’s home, so we tried clay from there. We also took a clay sample at Vista Point, where the Estate Tour & Tasting culminates—a location where the plate will be presented to guests. In the garden near our greenhouse, we found a spot that had been recently excavated to create better drainage. We removed a few retaining wall pavers, and saw this beautiful, almost-red, clay-heavy soil. That was the winner. Call it luck, call it fate, but the clay in the soil from our garden is the best clay for our custom plates. You can’t get more perfect than that.

Will Callnan: What’s great about this project is that between the design and the composition of the natural elements, every piece is slightly different. I like to think of them as fingerprints, each with their own unique signature. To ensure this individual character, we don’t slip-cast work, instead we prefer to handmake the molds for our pieces to help create that one-of-a-kind look and feel.

Nikki Ballere Callnan: We have dug clay from various winery properties for these sorts of custom projects before. It is exciting to see how the clay, once cleaned and processed, reacts through the firings and glazing. Sourcing the clay for a project from a specific terroir builds a story around the pottery and creates a deeper connection. It makes a memory between the piece and its origin.

What was it like to work with another married working couple?

Nitsa: There’s just an innate connection on many levels. Any time you have couples that work together, there’s a commonality. Most people can’t believe Todd and I work together. We can’t imagine not working together. Will and Nikki are the same way.

Todd: It’s hard to find two people working toward the same goal the way we are. We appreciate that in them. We know what’s important to us and what we should be striving for. For the four of us, it’s about artistic expression and lifestyle. Our food is strongly anchored in nature—the natural habitat we find around us in Sonoma. Their work follows the same design process and feel. Our crafts always have an awareness of place and time. It is both food and art inspired by the moment and by our surroundings. The four of us find joy in sharing beauty with others—creating things that bring our customers pleasure but are also artistically fulfilling to the maker.

Will: We really like Todd and Nitsa. We had a great bond the first time we met them. When Todd called us and told us what he had in mind for this, I was like, ‘Absolutely. We want to work with these guys.’ They’re kindred spirits.

What other common ground did you discover during the collaboration?

Will: Our motivation is to continue to create. As artists, we are our toughest critics and often struggle to be satisfied with our work. ‘Failure’ is relative to one’s perspective, and it’s important to keep your mind open because sometimes a happy accident can actually be the ‘eureka’ moment.

Nitsa: I get that. I want my tables to complement whatever Todd’s producing on the plate. It goes well together. But I’m also aware of the fact that I can always get better and try something new and different. It’s a constant process.

Nikki: Sometimes when designing a custom piece, you can get wrapped up in what you think the client wants and forget to step back and look at it from another’s perspective. Back when we had just started doing custom ceramics, we had a meeting with The Restaurant at Meadowood to create new service wares. We had designed various prototypes for them with a particular aesthetic in mind. As we were packing the work up and heading out the door, one of my Earthware bowls caught my eye, so I brought it. With its raw, rustic, irregular lip, refined, smooth interior and weighty, stone-like presence, the Earthware was outside what we thought they wanted, but it turned out to be a clear favorite.

We were happy with the other wares made for the project, and they liked what they saw too, but the Earthware piece really resonated with them. They then commissioned us to create ‘Earth’ chargers that set their dining room for a number of years to follow, changing the look and feel of the restaurant in a successful collaboration. Soon after, The Restaurant at Meadowood earned its third star from the Michelin Guide—a rating that continues to this day.

Todd: Right. Once, I spent three days creating a beautiful, golden squab consommé and dehydrating foraged blossoms for the first course of a charity dinner, and everyone raved most about the vegan chocolate cake we made for dessert, which was a recipe we simply adapted from the web. I mean, it was a good cake, but I’m a winery chef. You make educated guesses, and that only comes with time and experience. But, you never know 100 percent what’s going to work, where you’re going to find magic, so to speak. In the Jordan kitchen, I’m always trying to utilize natural elements from around the estate. Sometimes the things I expect to work out don’t work quite as well as I’d hoped. Other times the things I think won’t work at all end up being the biggest surprises.

Do you have similar creative processes?

Nikki: Whatever art you practice, whether it’s food or ceramics or winemaking, it’s a dynamic endeavor defined by the limitations of the medium and nature of creativity. It takes time, lots of hard work and dedication. It’s an ever-changing process of discovery, and often you’ll find that your best work comes from the most unexpected of places. Remaining curious and vigilant is key to success.

Todd: Absolutely. The end products are different, but the creative process is similar. It is an aesthetic partnership of sorts—a process of give and take with nature. You’re not always in control of the outcome, but at the best of times, nature collaborations are fruitful.

Nikki: Sometimes when designing a custom piece, you can get wrapped up in what you think the client wants and forget to step back and look at it from another’s perspective. Back when we had just started doing custom ceramics, we had a meeting with The Restaurant at Meadowood to create new service wares. We had designed various prototypes for them with a particular aesthetic in mind. As we were packing the work up and heading out the door, one of my Earthware bowls caught my eye, so I brought it. With its raw, rustic, irregular lip, refined, smooth interior and weighty, stone-like presence, the Earthware was outside what we thought they wanted, but it turned out to be a clear favorite.

We were happy with the other wares made for the project, and they liked what they saw too, but the Earthware piece really resonated with them. They then commissioned us to create ‘Earth’ chargers that set their dining room for a number of years to follow, changing the look and feel of the restaurant in a successful collaboration. Soon after, The Restaurant at Meadowood earned its third star from the Michelin Guide—a rating that continues to this day.

Todd: Right. Once, I spent three days creating a beautiful, golden squab consommé and dehydrating foraged blossoms for the first course of a charity dinner, and everyone raved most about the vegan chocolate cake we made for dessert, which was a recipe we simply adapted from the web. I mean, it was a good cake, but I’m a winery chef. You make educated guesses, and that only comes with time and experience. But, you never know 100 percent what’s going to work, where you’re going to find magic, so to speak. In the Jordan kitchen, I’m always trying to utilize natural elements from around the estate. Sometimes the things I expect to work out don’t work quite as well as I’d hoped. Other times the things I think won’t work at all end up being the biggest surprises.

What’s next for you four?

Todd: These first plates are only the beginning. We’re already talking to Will and Nikki about doing something else to showcase our honey. Our estate honeycomb is worthy of a small stage; it is truly one of nature’s perfect designs. Honeycomb is very inspiring to me. We’re still sketching designs, but I think it’s safe to say we’ll be incorporating more and more of these custom ceramics into our culinary program.

Nitsa: We’re also discussing vases. With the redesign of our dining room, I’m excited about finding beautiful linens and tying everything to the room. I have design specs of what changes are going to be taking place. We’ll brainstorm together. We’ll go over inspiration and see what we’re feeling. I love working with containers that are more round and short so you can always see over them. It’s usually hard for me to find a container I love using, so they’ll design a specific shape that’s perfect for our brand and our style of entertaining.

It’s usually hard for me to find a container I love using, so they’ll design a specific shape that’s perfect for our brand and our style of entertaining.

Nikki: We love to collaborate with clients, especially chefs and designers because they work so intimately with our ceramics to complement their food, environmental ambiance and aesthetic character. We believe that handmade wares elevate dining and help to create a more memorable and enriching experience for guests.

Will: Much as the nuance of color and brushstroke bring a painting to life, wares can act as the canvas for the chef’s art, with food and plate, flowers and vase becoming an expression of one’s own signature identity. We’re always creating. It’s just what we do. It’s what they do.

Guests can book a Jordan Estate Tour & Tasting to enjoy food pairings served on the Jordan Garden Plate by NBC Pottery. Plates are also available to purchase for $100.