While white tablecloths and bone china dishes have long been associated with fine dining, a new mold of tableware has hit restaurants in recent years. Handmade ceramic dishes crafted by local artisans are now gracing restaurant tables across the country as chefs create culinary presentations expressive of their fresh ingredients and restaurant aesthetic.
“The market once loved white; and white only,” says Bobby Gordon of Robert Gordon. “Now the market is connecting back to the craft of the handmade and as a result studio glazes are becoming far more sought after.”
Danish chef René Redzepi of acclaimed Copenhagen restaurant Noma (which currently has a pop-up restaurant in Barangaroo, Sydney), is credited with being one of the initiators of the trend. His food is presented on locally-crafted handmade ceramic dishes designed to complement the ingredients as well as the raw and rustic, yet elegant, interior of the restaurant.
The trend for handmade ceramics has undoubtedly taken hold in Australia too. Chef Lennox Hastie of Firedoor in Surry Hills, Sydney, has a self-proclaimed love of ceramics and believes the trend is a move away from the desire to constrain, refine, perfect and control. “There is more attention to detail and more interest in the bespoke experience,” he says. “It’s about being open and honest”, much like the open-kitchen trend, “and being more able to identify an ingredient on the plate.”
There has been a universal revival in the manufacture and popularity of ceramics of late. Like the studio craft movement that emerged in the 1960s and 70s, which celebrated the handmade object in response to social change and mass-manufactured goods, the craft revival of today can be seen as part of a response to massive technological change and production. “Handcrafted ceramics are ‘slow,’ unpredictable and exciting to make, and enchant us with their unique and often imperfect beauty; they move away from the ‘fast’ digitally driven world,” says Powerhouse Museum curator Eva Czernis-Ryl. “With artists like Grayson Perry and Ai Weiwei embracing craft and ceramics as part of their art, we continue to be inspired by the undeniable magic of hand-formed clay.”
Certainly, handmade ceramic dishes and fine restaurant food have much in common as both are derived from the earth and treated with water and fire; and in some cases they may come from the same earth and use the same fire. At Brae in Birregurra, Victoria, chef Dan Hunter serves a dish in which all the ingredients (bar the mussels) come from the surrounding Sunnybrae property. The plants are grown in the on-site garden and the plate, created by Cone 11 Ceramics, is formed with clay from the property’s dam and glazed with ash from the restaurant.
Ceramic and culinary dishes also share the artisanal quality of being formed by the hands of a craftsperson, be it chef or potter. Indeed, Richard Sennett’s book The Craftsman propositions that craftsmanship is the “intimate connection between hand and head” is clearly evident in the relationship between chef and potter, which is a collaboration of vision, skill and experimentation. “So much effort is put into the presentation by both chef and ceramicist it’s a shame for it to be glossed over,” says ceramicist Malcolm Greenwood who handcrafts dishes for Hastie. He appreciates the collaborative process, with the chefs sometimes pushing his work in different directions. Potter Glenn Tebble agrees. “It’s interesting how ‘raw’ chefs are prepared to go,” he says. “They are pushing the ceramic industry and the skill of the ceramicist.”
Functionally, restaurant dishes are designed to endure the knocks of a commercial kitchen. Visually, they are designed to complement ingredients and aesthetic. “Plate and food go hand in hand,” says Hastie, “as the narrative of ceramics relates to restaurant and experience.” His dishes are in harmony with Firedoor’s style and reflect both the nature of ingredients and environment of the restaurant. Some embrace the colour and texture of Firedoor’s industrial aesthetic while others suggest the colour of a large squid or the richness of an eggshell. “Food and plate need each other to be whole,” says Greenwood. “It’s about creating a little sculpture.”
In 2006 the National Gallery of Australia held the exhibition The Crafted Object 60s-80s and curator Robert Bell proposed it serve as encouragement for a new generation to engage with the ideas of craft and its role “in the interpretation of the Australian experience.” Indeed, the proliferation of ceramic artists and designers today is testament to the growth of the industry and its popularity, spurred—in part—by the restaurant industry. “Restaurants have been a fantastic platform for the ceramic revival,” says Gordon. “The hospitality market and the ceramic market complement each other so well, whereby the custom plate becomes the vessel to experience a lovely dish.” Plus, as Greenwood notes, it also advances the overall skill and artistry of the industry. “Making functional pieces contributes to a much better understanding when it comes to making art pieces,” he says.
The Powerhouse Museum has recently acquired a wide-ranging collection of retro stoneware ceramic plates from the 1970s courtesy of artist John Hinds that can inspire artists, designers and potters; and the next Recollect series to open in May will display a selection of ceramics from the eighteenth century to contemporary times, including handmade sculptural pieces.