Photography by Jonathan Hokklo
Local favorites of TPE, Soto Ceramics and Kettl Tea, are a gem-- a place where one can experience real Japanese-style leisure and commodities. Located above another neighborhood favorite, Okonomi, Soto and Kettl are run by a husband-wife duo, Zach and Minami. The collaborative and community aspect of these businesses on their little corner in Williamsburg reflects the warmth of their space and studio, where customers can explore a range of Japanese teas from Kettl and pick up one-of-a-kind ceramics from Soto.
We chatted with Zach and Minami to learn more about their unique backgrounds, businesses and what they love about Brooklyn.
Will you tell us a bit about your upbringings?
Minami: I was originally born on Shikoku Island at a hospital in my mom’s hometown but I grew up in Kanagawa prefecture, just south of Tokyo. My father is a photographer and has had a studio in Shinjuku (Tokyo) since I was 2 so I spent a lot of time in and around Tokyo.
Zach: I was born in Pennsylvania and grew up there until I was 12. My family then moved to Minnesota where I lived until high school graduation.
Will you tell us about your background and how you got your start in ceramics and tea? How did you begin working with the Okonomi team?
Minami: I grew up immersed in ceramics as my dad is a great lover of pottery and has a substantial collection of traditional Japanese pottery. So I feel I developed my interest early, almost at a DNA level. I was a textile designer in Tokyo before starting my journey in pottery. I eventually just decided if I was going to do it, I needed to make a big leap. Part of the transition felt almost easier in that it coincided with me moving from Japan to NYC. It felt like it was easier to go for it in the midst of another big life change.
Zach: I actually was a professional jazz musician prior to starting my business. After working for a Japanese tea company I booked a month long solo trip to Japan and discovered that the most incredible teas stay in Japan’s domestic market and the supply change was far too long and complicated to find much of anything interesting in the USA. I took my knack for improvising and just decided to try to source those special teas and shrink the chain, making it easier to connect farmers to customers--I thought why not do it in a simple, sincere and beautiful way that makes customers feel like they can relate to the brand without having to wear a kimono or participate in traditional tea ceremony. I met the team from Okonomi while doing a tea class for the staff. We hit it off and started a pop-up above their restaurant the next day which has morphed into our store. I guess we never left…
How did you two meet?
Zach: I was traveling in Japan for work when the owners of Burrow Bakery in Dumbo called me to ask about helping them secure a reservation with one of Kettl’s restaurant partners for their 10 year wedding anniversary. I snagged one for them but they ended up having to postpone the dinner due to a bout of the flu. The owner felt so bad thinking it had somehow compromised my relationship with the restaurant, which it hadn’t. He called me back and said he felt so sorry and how could he make it up to me? After unsuccessfully trying to let him know it was fine, I asked him to introduce me to one of the funny, cute and interesting women who was working at the bakery. I got back to the states two months later and he called me to report he had found the perfect girl. To be honest, I had forgotten my own request! So they came for dinner two days later and I truly fell in love with Minami that day. We got married 10 months later.
How would you describe the types of goods you make and how they go together side by side?
Minami: I make primarily smaller homewares like cups, mugs, small bowls etc. Rather than creating a line and repeatedly making the same forms and finishes, I am interested in the traditional Japanese style of mixing unique pieces to create a colorful whole. I like the idea that by creating so many unique and one-of-a-kind pieces, people can feel creative in choosing the pieces they like together rather than just buying a set. They become more involved in my work by having a choice in how to display it.
Zach: Technically I don’t make anything - I work with a dedicated network of growers and tea producers in Japan to assemble a compelling offering of Japan’s finest teas. In addition, I do source pottery for the store and online. The farmers and artisans each make products that need each other - think about tea and the teacup. I love working with them all and developing the Kettl’s point of view and connecting that with customers who can appreciate what it is we do, is really the best.
Where are you based in Brooklyn?
We live and have a store in East Williamsburg. Our personal lives and work overlap in so many ways it feels very natural to live and work on the same street.
We love our food community including Campbell’s cheese, Vine Wine, Okonomi, and Lorimer market. Williamsburg is so vibrant and local when it comes to buying ingredients and since we cook a lot, we spend so much time at these establishments. We love Four Horseman for wine, St. Anselm for a meat fix, and Ops in Bushwick for pizza. We live close to McCarren park and are within walking distance of the Brooklyn waterfront so a great day would be getting out for a long walk in the neighborhood.
How do you feel that living in Brooklyn affects your work? How are you inspired by Japan?
Minami: In Brooklyn I feel much more relaxed now that I consider it my home. My family, friends, and creative life is in Brooklyn. I really feel that Brooklyn has become influential in my personal growth and now coexists with my Japanese identity and has helped me to develop as a person and a potter. In regards to Japan, I spent 28 years of my life there and think in 95% Japanese, so beyond inspiration, Japan is in everything I do and think. After moving to New York, I have been able to develop a perspective that is much different than while I was living there in regards to food, culture, socializing, and my creative work. Yet in a way, Japan seems all the more inspiring now that I am not living there.
Zach: Practically, Brooklyn is a unique economy that can support a company with a very focused concept such as Kettl’s. It is hard to find the level of support and so many interested customers in other cities, I would imagine. But more than anything it is the people that influence me the most. Brooklyn has so many wonderful, driven and interesting people to be inspired by and work with. As for Japan, it was simply a “before Japan, after Japan” kind of thing for me. It just changed so much for me. It gave me a target - a sort of unreachable ideal to aim for. The culture is so developed and thoughtful which continues to be such an inspiration. And Japanese tea just feels like the center of hub with many spokes shooting out from it: culture, design, art, cuisine, aesthetic etc…it is endlessly inspiring.
What are you currently reading, watching, listening to?
Minami: Reading: Southpoint by Banana Yoshimoto. Watching: Videos of my cats on my phone. Listening: Hanaregumi.
Zach: Reading: Japanese text books, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. Watching: Neo Yokio, the new season of Mind of Chef (Danny Bowien is a long time customer of Kettl). Listening: Angel Olsen, the ECM record label recently became streamable so binging on Paul Motian and Charlie Haden!
What is your favorite way to take a break from your work?
Minami: Have a cup of tea!
Zach: Hanging with Minami and eating her cooking, spending time with friends. Natural Wine, Tea, Cookies.
Photography by Jonathan Hokklo