“It really inspired me, so I thought: Ok, I’ll try this full time. And that was six years ago. So I jumped in.”
Last week, I had the pleasure of interviewing the wildly talented, Jeremy Ogusky, reigning king of the fermentation crock at Ogusky Ceramics. Jeremy has a unique eye that sees and cultivates community in a beautiful way; his ceramics tell the story of a life long passion for food between his two interests, public health and pottery. It was such a treat to be able to peer into his fascinating world.
“I never thought about being a potter. I’ve always been interested in clay, and I actually started making pots in high school, but I didn’t think about it as a full time thing. I was always more interested in health, and social change and improving populations’ health. Originally, I thought I was going to go into medicine, but I ended up studying public health at Boston University in 2000 and 2001, and for about ten years after, I worked in public health around the world.”
Jeremy first worked as a volunteer in the Peace Corps. He spent some time in South Africa working in HIV/AIDS prevention, then taught global health and social medicine in Ecuador, where he met his wife, who was also a volunteer in the Peace Corps. They came back to the U.S. and moved to Washington DC where Jeremy worked in HIV/AIDS prevention with youth, and in public policy. Eventually, they returned to Boston where Jeremy worked for Harvard, until he unexpectedly lost his job.
“Over the years, I had been practicing ceramics, but I always saw it as a hobby. In Ecuador, I even apprenticed with a potter, part time. After I lost my job, my wife really encouraged me to think about ceramics. I took a two-week class at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on the coast of Maine, and I just immersed myself in ceramics, which I had never done before. I hadn’t studied ceramics since high school! It wasn’t very serious at first, but it really inspired me, so I thought: Ok, I’ll try this full time. And that was six years ago. So I jumped in.”
While working in pottery has the potential to be a very isolating profession, Jeremy has created a unique role for himself at the intersection of art and food.
"I've always been interested in the application of ceramics. Food is, for me, the first thing I thought of; I’ve always had an interest in food. Over the last few years, I’ve learned more, and met more people working in the food world: writers, photographers, cooks, bartenders, scientists. I’ve never considered myself an artist first, necessarily. I think of an artist as a person that’s drawn to the medium and the making aspect— and I am certainly interested in the making aspect— but I’m equally, if not more, interested in the usage aspect of ceramics. To me, ceramics and food have always gone hand in hand. As I’ve built more relationships, and more people in the food industry have gotten to know me, they come up with all kinds of wild, weird applications I never would've thought of, which is great— I love that!"
Though Jeremy left the public health world behind him for a while, over the last few years, he has found ways to integrate his knowledge and experience in health, education and community work.
Jeremy frequently takes on collaborative projects with local chefs and restaurants in Boston, and beyond: Grill 23, Rouge Tomate NYC, La Brasa, Tres Gatos, Kirkland Tap & Trotter and Liberty Hotel, to name a few. In order to design these specific pieces, Jeremy does deep research with historians and food scientists, and really considers questions along the lines of, What would an ideal bowl, plate, mug, etc. look like? What are the desirable dimensions? How can I enhance the experience of eating? Anyone could eat a meal off of a disposable paper plate, or drink wine out of a plastic cup, but people want experiences.
"There are a lot of things that contribute to the experience of eating. Restaurants really consider all these factors that make a 'good' experience, and tableware is definitely part of that. People love eating off of my work. Despite the fact that it’s not super flashy or grabs your attention, necessarily. Once used, you start to appreciate the weight and the shape, and just the beauty of using something handmade."
In addition to Jeremy’s work for restaurants, hotels, barbers, bakers, he is also the founder-head-organizer-superman of Boston Ferments and the annual Boston Fermentation Festival, which started in 2013. Boston Ferments is "a collective of fermenting enthusiasts, lovers of real food, and folks interested in the health aspects of living foods." They organize fermentation-related projects, courses and festivals in and around the Boston area.
When asked how he got into fermenting foods as a hobby, Jeremy said, “For me, it was just taste. I love the flavors of fermented foods. I’ve always loved blue cheese, I love sourdough bread- I’ve always loved funky kimchi. I'm drawn to sour, tangy, funky flavors. It was only a few years ago that a friend of mine, who’s a nutritionist and health expert, helped me realize this. I didn’t even know much about fermented food at the time, but listing them off: yogurt, beer, bread…. I thought, these are all my favorite foods! After that, I started to explore and make simple ferments, which is largely what I still make today: sauerkrauts and kimchi. Because I’m a potter, I made a fermentation crock for myself. I’d make a batch of something, and give it to friends and family, and eventually, people started asking for recipes...and for fermentation crocks, and it really grew from there."
Once the fermentation process became a major interest for Jeremy, he turned to other resources to learn more. He looked to food writer, DIY activist and self-proclaimed fermentation revivalist, Sandor Katz. "Sandor Katz is really the grandfather of fermentation. After I read his book, I sent him a crock, just as a thank you, because he inspired me so much. He’s very approachable as a person, and his book is remarkably approachable. I felt inspired, not threatened or intimidated, to try all this stuff. In his newest book, 'The Art of Fermentation,' there’s a photo of one of my crocks (see the photo above!). The book ended up being a New York Times Best Seller, won a James Beard award, and it's really the Bible of fermentation. A lot of people discover me through that, and Williams Sonoma eventually found me, so things just kind of took off!"
Apple Cider Vinegar Tasting
We sat on miniature stools and chatted about everything from the loss of heirloom species to scorpion bowls to the war against bacteria, and we could only solve so many of the world's issues that morning, so instead, we sampled some homemade apple cider vinegar, and it tasted something like this:
Apple-y is a given, but this was a bright, distinctly floral cider vinegar with notes of pear skin, a hint of sweetness and an earthy, mushroom-y funk.
Read more about Jeremy here. Or say hello in person at the 2016 Boston Fermentation Festival on August 28th at The Boston Public Market. Follow him on Instagram @bostonpotter to see his latest creations!