For Tena Payne a bunch of shiitake mushrooms changed her life. The Birmingham wife and mother of two had been pursuing her passion for creating pottery as a hobby for years, but she’d found it difficult – impossible, really – to make a living doing it. Everything changed when, on that fateful day in 1997, she connected with Chef Chris Hastings of Hot & Hot Fish Club, who was purchasing said shiitakes. The chef found out Tena was a potter – a dinnerware medium he’d long admired but had found not to be hearty enough to withstand the rigors of restaurant service. The pair started collaborating, bound only by Tena’s (wild) imagination and Chris’ exacting specifications of dimension. Under the name Earthborn Pottery, Tena began to experiment with the science of creating pottery that was both durable and visually pleasing. What was once a hobby quickly became a thriving business, since more people interacted with Earthbound pieces in a single night at Hot & Hot Fish Club than might’ve in months selling at art fairs.
The partnership between Earthborn and chefs – she’s since added restaurants the world over – is one made in heaven, according to Tena. “Chefs are artists too,” she explains. “They take raw materials from the earth, put them together, put them in the oven and offer them to someone else. That’s exactly what we do with pottery.” In her studio, a 24,000 square foot former watch factory, she employs 11 potters, each trained to do one element of production. She maintains the reigns in terms of design, relishing moments spent at the potter’s wheel, firing pieces in the kiln and selecting glazes with serene names like Sky, River Rock, Paradise Blue and Honey Butter. When a new restaurant signs on, every element of their order is custom, from shapes and sizes to glazes and finishes.
One of her proudest moments came just this year when she visited Sensi at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, a restaurant which has served its acclaimed dishes on Earthborn plates for ten years. The chef visited her table, congratulating her for the longevity of plates that are still in use after all those years (the average lifespan for a typical restaurant plate is just six months). “Chefs can choose anything in the world, and they choose us,” she says with pride.
The Earthborn factory building also features a school to teach would-be potters the craft and a gallery where guests can take home a set of food-grade pottery of their very own.