The Mexican stew known as pozole will be a staple at the soon-to-open Petite León, and chef/co-owner Jorge Guzmán will not be entrusting one of his signature dishes to a random off-the-shelf soup bowl.

Instead, he’s commissioned St. Paul potter Kevin Caufield to create vessels that will enhance the pozole’s myriad characteristics.

“I love going to get pho, and that’s where this idea came from,” said Guzmán. “But I didn’t want to serve pozole in a plastic bowl, that would be too kitschy. Kevin is building a specially made bowl for us that’s shallow enough so that the bone from the chicken leg sticks out, but it’s also deep enough to hold the hominy, cabbage, tortilla strips and avocado. It’s perfect.”

In all, Caufield has fashioned nearly 500 stoneware bowls, plates and serving pieces for Guzmán’s 70-seat south Minneapolis restaurant, all glazed in earthy, Instagram-ready greens, dark browns, terra cottas and burnt oranges.

“They have a very Mexican feeling to them,” said Guzmán. “I’m kind of weird, because when I’m creating a dish, I think in color, first, and then I create the food around that color. Kevin’s work is making our food look even better.”

Presentation matters

One-of-a-kind tableware is a rarity in Twin Cities restaurants. Venerable Al’s Breakfast has long relied upon Minnesota potter Peter Leach — and now Benjamin Krikava — for the salt and pepper shakers, jam pots and other serveware that adorn its yellow linoleum counter. At Grand Cafe, chef/owner Jamie Malone has a connoisseur’s eye for collecting vintage dishes and glassware. And for his 20-seat Demi, chef/owner Gavin Kaysen commissioned Chicago potter Ashley Lin for memorably beautiful ceramics and tapped Jackson Schwarz of Hennepin Made in Minneapolis for sleekly crafted knives.

But few are turning to local artisans on the scale that Guzmán is embracing.

“It’s so easy to buy dishes from anywhere, but unless you’re spending real money, they’re meh,” said Guzmán. “This is my first restaurant, and I want to present our best foot forward. And it will be a showcase for Kevin’s work. When you own a restaurant and have a say in what you’re doing, it’s very easy to support other people.”

This isn’t Caufield’s first foray into the restaurant universe, having created gorgeous ramen bowls for Tori, chef/owner Jason Dorweiler’s must-visit St. Paul ramen shop. But his baptism into the industry came courtesy of James Beard award-­winning chef Tim McKee.

Over the course of the three-year run of McKee’s Octo Fishbar — the Lowertown restaurant closed in late July, a victim of the pandemic’s economic fallout — potter and chef closely collaborated on several thousand dishes, including showstopping seafood towers made of round porcelain trays glazed cerulean.

“We wanted an underwater feel to the color palette, and Kevin delivered it,” said McKee. “That’s the thing. Food itself can be amazing, but if you give it an amazing presentation, then it’s way better, and a really cool way to give what you’re doing a bit of personality and a unique identity.”

An eastern transplant

Caufield, 63, grew up on New York’s Long Island, and fully expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a New York City firefighter.

But he had also spent his teenage years at the potter’s wheel, and in 1979 those happy experiences led to a life-changing apprenticeship program with a pottery studio in Bayfield, Wis.

“I had to look on a map to see where Wisconsin was,” he said.

For the next 2 ½ years, Caufield mastered his craft, then moved to St. Paul (“like anything else in this world, there was a girl involved,” he said with a laugh), where he has remained. And for the past seven years, he’s inhabited a sunlight-filled workspace in the back of a former University Avenue warehouse that’s now a warren of artist studios.

This one-man factory makes his craft look easy, going through a thousand pounds of clay in four days to create 160 dinner plates for Petite León (“the making goes fast, I just put my head down and keep going,” he said), but there’s a lot of on-the-job stress.

“Everyone thinks pottery is this kumbaya thing,” said Caufield. “But meanwhile, I’m thinking deadlines, and commitments and, ‘Is this going to turn out?’ My job is to interpret what people want, deliver it and make them happy.”

His first brush with large-scale production dates to the late 1990s, when he stumbled into a craze for tabletop fountains and ended up producing thousands of them.

“I threw every single one, and I learned not to be afraid of working on that scale,” he said. “And then I sat on a beach on St. Barts for a month with fountain earnings.”

The pandemic brought abrupt and significant changes to the Caufield Clay Works balance sheet. Traditionally, a third of his revenue comes from classes — since 2014, he’s had more than 10,000 people take a seat at the 10 potter’s wheels in his studio — but that came to a halt, although they’ve recently resumed. Another third is from sales at a half-dozen art festivals, all canceled.

“This would have been my 40th anniversary at the Renaissance Festival,” he said.

But Caufield hasn’t been idle. Along with Guzmán’s order, salvation — and much-needed revenue — came in the form of private orders. Since April, he’s produced 15 custom dinnerware sets.

“People wanted to help,” he said. “It’s profound, how much people have wanted to help. They would call up and say, ‘We’ve been wanting to do this for a while, and we thought that now would be a good time to do it.’ It sure was.”

Caufield is looking forward to Petite León’s much-anticipated opening. Not only to dine, but so he can witness his stoneware in action.

“It’s amazing to see food come out of the kitchen on my wares,” he said. “It helps me to see how people interact with my dishes, and that helps me fine tune. I get goose bumps. It’s emotional, because this is my life’s work.”