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People of the Year 2015 | Keith Kreeger

Here’s the funny thing about one of the hottest names in Austin’s restaurant scene right now: He’s not a chef, or even a bartender, he’s a ceramicist. Keith Kreeger’s work is playing a major role in how we dine — both in Austin and across the country.

“There’s not many objects in restaurants that you touch, and I work with one of them. It’s very cool,” the soft-spoken Kreeger says over avocado toast at Café No Se. Almost subconsciously, he picks up the large dish in front of him to see whose work it is, and then chuckles as he sets it down: “My kids, now they pick up plates when we go out to eat. It’s fantastic.”

If you’ve ever eaten in Austin’s best restaurants, then you know Kreeger’s work. It’s a vessel for exquisite sushi at Uchi and Uchiko, beautiful veggies at Gardner, and the best biscuits ever at Olamaie. Kreeger produces custom ceramics not only for Austin’s finest chefs like Paul Qui (he designed an entire custom dinnerware collection for the opening of the famed chef’s flagship restaurant Qui), but for top chefs across America, like Tim Maslow of Boston’s Ribelle. There’s no question that his thoughtful, handmade work is an integral part of elevating diners’ experiences.

From the very beginning of his career, Kreeger has been driven by his instincts. As an American studies major at Skidmore College, he took a ceramics class one summer and found himself hooked. “I’ve always loved the process,” he says. “I loved seeing the results and unloading the kiln and seeing the ideas … there’s information in every piece that you make.” Spending more and more time in the ceramics studio, Kreeger stopped envisioning himself going into politics or law and instead began seeing a future as an artist.

“It just happened,” Kreeger says of his career as a ceramicist and maker, who ran his own contemporary craft gallery on Cape Cod for 12 years before moving to Austin in 2009 with his wife, Evangelina, a native Texan, and their three kids. “It was a scary move,” he says. Kreeger was leaving the support system he had on Cape Cod, something that’s even more important when your work is “something you have to see and hold and touch.” But the Austin arts community embraced him almost immediately, and his work, which was at the time primarily retail, began to shift more and more towards the hospitality industry.

“Again, I just sort of fell into it,” says Kreeger. “I wasn’t trying to work with hospitality, I just realized that all of my customers were going out to eat, and were thinking about where their objects came from along with where their food came from. Details and experience matter within the restaurant world. Just like real food matters, real objects matter.”

These days, he’s busy unloading several kilns a week for at least a dozen restaurants in town, plus more nationally. Kreeger feels lucky to be in a city that is both receptive of his work, and so eager to collaborate. “The support of this city for me and my work…I’m grateful for it,” says Kreeger, more than once throughout our breakfast.

“Making things here has been really good for me,” he goes on. “Even though [Austin is] booming and growing and there are cranes all over the place for the third time since I moved here, there’s this underlying support that it has for good things.”

Kreeger makes sure to give back to the supportive community he has found in Austin. In addition to his own work, he serves as President of the Board of Directors of Big Medium, and played a major role in putting on this year’s East Austin Studio Tour, which he feels strongly connected to on a personal level. “I moved here in August [2009] and in November I opened the doors for E.A.S.T… so you know right away I had people walking through my studio. [The tour] was really important to me.”

Now, he’s working to make sure other emerging artists can continue to have that same experience — both at E.A.S.T and in Austin in general. “I’ve seen it as an artist, and I know how important it is,” he says. “I don’t think there’s an art experience in this city that activates the city as E.A.S.T does. [It’s] really important to the identity of the city to make sure we continue to have access to the creative culture.”

As far as his own work, Kreeger plans to just keep following that killer instinct of his. “I want to just keep working,” he says. “Intuition has gotten me to this exciting place, and I’m going to keep rolling with it.”

CREDITS

Photography by Chad Wadsworth | Hair by Jessica Casarez of Lip Service | Makeup by Dolce - Ivy Kim

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