John Welch: Elevating the Most Ordinary Food

John Welch at work. (Photo: Jenn Bakos Photo.)

“This past weekend, I knew I needed to test a new pasta board design…but hadn’t had time to sort out what I’d do with the pasta. Then when I’m out running errands, I spot some beautiful in-season asparagus at the local farm, which was nice and thick, just about the diameter of the cavatelli I was going to be making! Quick blanch and ice water bath on the asparagus, simple butter sauce with lemon juice and splash of white wine, finished with burrata, lemon zest, and of course an olive oil drizzle. Late spring on a plate!”

This paragraph from a recent Instagram post pretty much explains why I wanted to interview John Welch for the blog. John is a guy who primarily makes beautiful things out of wood for the preparation and serving of food. He’s not a furniture maker (though he certainly could be); his posts are not about dovetails, or techniques for finishing. Rather, he is motivated by a desire to “take something ordinary and make it special.”

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The photo that accompanied the quotation at the head of this post.
The love of food has always been there.

When asked what brought him to the world of pasta molds and boards, he answered simply “I love food. I love cooking food, eating, all kinds of food.” Add to this his observation that “too many people have beautiful things that are too precious [to use],” and you’re on your way to understanding what drives this man to finish most days at the office with several hours of work in his shop. What could be simpler than pasta – a basic dough of flour, salt and water? But roll a pinch of that mix across a board carved with decorative patterns, and you’ve elevated the plainest of pastas to an art form – as pleasing to the eye as it is effective at capturing a spoonful of saucy goodness and conveying it to the mouth.

Texture aplenty in pasta made with parsley and saffron, respectively.
Evidence that food and woodworking belong together: A third-year birthday cake in the shape of a handsaw.

The origin of his interest was basically curiosity, John said in reply to my question about what got him started.

“I wanted to know if pasta could take and hold an impression. I assumed it would but had never seen a textured ravioli. I made my own mold first, then I did some Googling to see if anyone already made something like that.” John could have ordered a mold to use as an example but decided against doing so for a few reasons. “I am always very afraid of inadvertently ‘borrowing’ someone else’s idea, so I thought that the less I looked at them, the less likely I would happen upon a similar pattern or idea. Also, the motivation to make them was…a curiosity [as to whether] it’d work, then how to make it work; if I had one in hand, it’d be easier for me to reverse-engineer and that would have taken all the fun out of it! I didn’t make them with the intention to sell. It was just a fun project.” It took John a few attempts to figure out how deep the carving would have to be to show up on the pasta and remain sharp after cooking.

The first one he was happy with featured a wheat pattern loosely based on an example of Art Deco ironwork. Made in walnut, it had leaves in the corners; he put stars between them.

Early pasta mold.
A savory pumpkin ravioli. To see how John served it, go to the end of the post. Food preparation images by Jenn Bakos Photo.
The filling is pumpkin-based.
Flattening a small piece of dough with an old-fashioned rolling pin before running it through the pasta mangle.

Woodworking
This is not a story about someone born into a family of woodworkers or generations who have made their own pasta from scratch. John’s forebears are not Italian; most are Irish mixed with French-Canadian. The “Francis” in his business name is his middle name; he’s John Francis Welch V.

The first spoon John carved, in process. The bowls for his ravioli molds are done with a router and jig.

John, the eldest of three siblings, grew up in a late-1800s house where his father always seemed to be engaged in repairs and maintenance. Although his dad didn’t compel or even expect John’s help, he exposed his older son to many aspects of home repair and restoration simply by carrying out household repairs and improvements.

As a woodworker, John is self-taught. When he was a kid his family didn’t have cable, but John could watch PBS, where he became a regular viewer of “The Woodwright’s Shop” and “The New Yankee Workshop.” He found the content interesting but had no intention of ever applying what he learned in real life. Even so, some of it sank in.

Teddy bear chair.

His parents loved handmade gifts, things from the heart. John dabbled in woodworking during high school; he was going to give his girlfriend a teddy bear and had decided to make an oak chair for it. His dad helped him cut the parts to size; then John built the chair with mortise-and-tenon joints. His mother had woven some baskets, so based on her example, he decided to weave a seat.

After that, woodworking went on the back burner as his interests shifted to motorcycles, fast cars and weight lifting, which led him to certification as a personal trainer. On his website you’ll find a portrait of John with bulging biceps that might lead you to wonder whether he’s more interested in appearances than substance. Not a bit of it. In middle school, other students had pushed him around, grabbing his books. His dad encouraged him to develop his muscles saying, “If you were strong enough to hold onto those books, they wouldn’t be able to rip them out of your hands.” So, as with most things that piqued his interest, John picked up that ball and ran with it.

The obligatory motorcycle.

He worked as a personal trainer in college, then, in his late 20s, he got into competitive power lifting. “I tend to be very goal oriented,” he explains. “I was losing focus – ‘Why am I going to the gym at 5 a.m?’ I’ve always been a very curious person, both [in terms of] ‘how does that work’ and ‘can I do that?’ Power lifting was very different from anything I’d done before.” The goal of competition provided just the oomph he needed, not just to keep going, but to excel. He won his first competition.

When John bought a townhouse in 2009, he had some home improvement projects in mind. He bought a miter saw and put up crown moulding, then replaced some doors. After the first few projects, he ran out of things to do. John was godfather to the daughter of a good friend; for her first birthday, her mother put in a request for a toy box. “I think she was expecting me to throw something together with plywood,” he remembers. “But if I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it well.” The toy box became his focus that summer. John had bought some handplanes on eBay; his brother deals in antiques, and John had tagged along on some of his adventures, which exposed him to more tools. He learned to sharpen. He bought some rough-sawn lumber and got started, building the toy box with stub tenons and solid wood panels. If it lasted, he figured, someday it could be used as a chest to store things other than toys. He worked in the garage, with a pair of sawhorses, a router, miter saw, circular saw and set of Kobalt chisels from Lowe’s.

A toy chest John made for his goddaughter.
The toy chest with finish.

In his day job, John designs extrusion dies for pasta at De Mari Pasta Dies. He was the first employee in the business who was not related to the founding family. Most of their products are in large chain grocery stores around the United States. “Every cartoon [mac and cheese made by one of the nation’s largest food corporations] for the last 15 years, I have personally designed all of those.”

While he appreciates his work and gives it his level best, he says, “I work my 8 hours and leave. With woodworking I can make what I want to make. It gives me the freedom to do what I want to do.”

For a time, he used his garage as a woodshop. He had to come up with some items to make that would need little space and very few tools. Spoons were one candidate, a handmade item that would “add a lot of love and care” in the preparation of a meal. His business took off from there.

As part of his day job for a time, John oversaw the installation of major pasta-making machinery at facilities around the North American continent, mostly in the Midwest, but with a few trips to Washington State and Canada. The travel for work underscored that his decision to buy a townhouse with his wife, Kara, a training specialist for a property management company, had been sound; their home required far less work than would have been required by a house with multiple rooms and a yard to maintain. While traveling for work, he had to use the garage for his car, not woodworking.

When the travel for work slowed down and John again had time for woodworking, he needed a studio space to rent – either that, or he and Kara would have to move to another house. The first studio he rented and the couple he rented after that were at Western Avenue in Lowell, Mass.; in June of 2021 he moved to his current space, 240 square feet in a repurposed textile mill that had been turned into artist studios. As he later learned, the building is the same one where his great-grandfather had worked decades before as a “grease monkey,” maintaining machinery for one of the mills that made Lowell, Mass., such a late-19th-century economic powerhouse that many still think of it as “the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution” (at least in North America). John’s great-grandfather also did some woodworking on the side. He built the house where John’s paternal grandmother grew up, followed by his own father, and where John’s parents continue to live. His great-grandfather had made a grandmother clock as a gift for John’s parents; today John keeps it in his studio.

The grandmother clock.

At this point, he says, “My goal was to pay the rent for my studio. If money was no object, I would make mirrors, wall sculptures, hand-carved tabletops. But the ravioli molds caught on.” When he started, charcuterie boards were a transition after the toy box for his goddaughter.

John is constantly looking for ways to improve his processes – to carve the ravioli molds, he’s upgraded his tool chest with some chisels from Japan, and he now makes some of the decorative patterns with a router. “As much as I love carving,” he acknowledges, “it gets to a point where it’s not financially feasible. I don’t really make spoons anymore; it’s partly because I can’t charge enough to make it worth it.”

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This concern with workflow is a holdover from his day job, where he’s required to maximize efficiency. “I’ve always been more Type A,” John remarks. “The other artists at my former studio would tell me ‘You’re not a real artist,’ because my studio was so clean. I’ve always been like that: If something could be better, why not make it [so]?”

Some might have burned out after 300 ravioli molds, the number he sold in 2021. Not John. He plans to keep making them. “Part of what’s kept me going is that with the internet, a lot of people who buy them make these incredible dishes. I can’t tell you the rewarding feeling it gives me to see people feeding their friends and family with molds I’ve made.” He hopes to do more carving – art pieces, textured mirrors and more – but acknowledges the struggle involved in “going from ‘practical’ things to things that are meant [primarily] to be looked at. I blame it on my Yankee upbringing not to engage in ‘frivolous’ things.’”

He also continues to make a smaller number of other wares, such as charcuterie trays and pasta boards.

Carved bookend.
Carved platter.
Carved platter, underside.
Carved platter, detail.
Side table with carved top.

“I mentioned that I like to cook, but I LOVE to cook, and most of all explore with food. I love that the possibilities are endless, there is so much to learn, so much freedom of expression allowed. I love that you can travel to distant lands that you may never otherwise get to experience, all through flavors,” says John. “So with that said, my kitchen adventures have been pretty thorough: sausage making, curing meats, smoking, bread baking, pasta making (obviously), pâté and terrines, sous vide cooking, etc… About the only thing I don’t dabble in are baked sweets!”

Selfishly, I’d like to think it’s just a matter of time.

Spinach-ricotta filling.
Crispy prosciutto tops the pumpkin ravioli with brown butter sauce.

– Nancy Hiller, author of “Shop Tails,”Kitchen Think” and “Making Things Work.”

Source: lostartpress.com

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