Any chef will tell you that for a dish to be truly great, plating is key. Too often overlooked, though, is the canvas for that presentation: the actual plate.
Not so for David Taegun Kim, a Chicago ceramicist who makes plates you simply can’t ignore. Earthy, intricate, and even playful, Kim’s plates don’t hog the spotlight so much as they support a dish — and they’ve caught the eye of Chicago’s top restaurateurs.
By Kim’s count, his plateware appears in eight restaurants across the city, including Oriole, Temporis, Schwa, and the recently opened Jeong. Often, Kim will craft plates designed for a single, specific dish.
“It’s good when chefs know how they want the object to function. If they make something the size of your thumb that’s a one-bite thing, that gives me a lot of creative maneuverability to design how [the plate] will look,” Kim says.
“If I know the ingredients, I can also work with color. Do I want the dish to contrast the food, or complement it? Do I want bright or subtle colors?”
That may sound glamorous, but just a few years ago, Kim, now 28, was making ceramics in his family’s garage in Glenview. While showcasing his work at Plumber’s Union Hall in West Loop, Kim earned the attention of Schwa chef Michael Carlson, who promptly placed an order for some plates.
Then, in spring 2016, Oriole pastry chef Genie Kwon spotted Kim’s work at a festival. She was so excited by what she saw that she invited Kim to bring his work to the then-new restaurant. According to general manager Cara Sandoval, his work cast a spell over the team.
“He put everything out on all the tables, and everyone in the restaurant was picking stuff up and oohing and ahhing at it,” she says.
Demand for Kim’s work ballooned, and in September, he moved into his own studio in Austin. There, he crafts nearly 300 new pieces a month, fulfilling commissions for chefs and taking orders on his website.
“It’s a challenge that I really like: How am I going to make this, and what’s the most productive way of making it?” Kim says. “Because in the end, it is production — I can’t take a month or a year on one bowl.”
Kim is no stranger to the restaurant industry: His father, Jimmy, is the sushi chef and owner at Ara-on, and Kim worked in the downtown restaurant when he was younger. (Today, Ara-on is among the restaurants that use his plates.) Kim drew on his stint in food service long before he pivoted from abstract sculpture — his focus at SAIC, where he studied from 2009 to 2013 — and honed his focus on dishware.
“Work[ing] in a restaurant is really similar to what I do — the process, the prepping, the weighting, the measuring, the making. It translates really nicely,” he says.
When it comes to making dishes, Kim says, aesthetics are important, but functionality is paramount. Even the simplest pieces require carefully plotted reverse engineering and close attention to materials.
“Clay [is] really malleable, so when you’re making something sculptural, you have to think about the weak points,” he says. “With clay and glazes, I enjoy the aspect of finding a combination that works and then building my variables upon that base. It’s like a science lab, where I have to do a lot of tests to find one that works for me.”
Especially when filling custom orders, Kim’s designs are often collaborative. Temporis chef Don Young — a fan since 2017, when a mutual acquaintance showed him the DTK Ceramics Instagram page — finds a kindred spirit in Kim’s “high-energy, wild” creative process.
“I can sit down and have a whiskey with him and talk about ideas,” he says. “If I have a plate I want redone, he can do it for me. If I have some wild idea about a cup that looks like a coconut, he’ll design it for me.”
According to Young, that collaborative process opens up radical new possibilities.
“Right now, I’m having him design a plate for a specific course [in progress]. Without that plate, the dish won’t work,” he says. “Having someone make a plate to fit exactly what I wanted — that’s the mesmerizing part of it.”
With more chefs commissioning Kim’s work, he may not be the dining scene’s best-kept secret much longer. Sandoval says that Oriole staff find themselves frequently fielding questions about Kim’s “perfectly imperfect” plates. Some patrons even recognize his work.
“Whenever we travel, we go to fancy home stores looking for stuff, but David makes stuff that is as beautiful if not more beautiful than plates that are handmade in Italy,” she says. “It’s really lovely to have access to someone local who’s so talented.”