“Never underestimate the impact a plate can have on the food being presented”– James Campbell, head chef, MoVida
In the world of fashion, clothes have long been pushed to their limits, providing a full spectrum of sensual provocation to the wearer. Tableware, however, on the whole remains relatively conservative – and in the wake of paired down modernism and the industrial production of Habitat-white dinner sets, one could almost say there’s been a fashion for not taking interest in the individual plate, or saucer, or bowl that serves as a vessel for our most intimate of worldly activities.
However this is changing fast, as acclaimed restaurants exchange ubiquitous, shiny ceramics for custom handmade pieces. Far from providing a blank canvas for the culinary delights they bestow, ceramicists such as California-based Jared Nelson are crafting tableware that actively participates in the dining experience, in accordance with an expanded notion of contemporary cuisine. “Chefs’ approaches involve a wider community now: farmers, fishermen, craftspeople”, he explains, “What you’re going to see in the dinnerware is more unique cultural experiences, in an age where we have prolific monocultural elements in our communities.” For those who refuse the anonymity of mass-produced comestibles, Jared’s work chimes with a sensitive approach to where and how food is sourced, extending this interest beyond farm-fresh edibles into the very materiality of the tableware that hosts them. His ceramics are designed in collaboration with the chef in order to visually compliment a restaurant’s ethos and aesthetic, and of course they are much more than just a feast for the eyes. Made from locally sourced clay, his ‘California Line’ emerges – like a perfectly grown parsnip – from the golden earth beneath his feet, contributing to a marvellously coherent dining experience that is focused on the irreproducible experience of relating to a place, whole heartedly, in the present.
“Materials are very important, they’re a human expression of values, and obsessions and dreams and so they’re as important as literature and music… In that sense they are an expression of us, and going to a restaurant is like a symphony.” (Mark Miokovic, materials scientist)
It’s not surprising that this form of intimacy with the tastes and textures of a given locale infectiously charges the communal experience of eating together. In fact it’s not too far fetched to suggest that Jared’s lovingly customized tableware facilitates new ways of relating to each other as well as with our food, through a new focus on serving vessels that encourage circulation and sharing, inspired by an increasing variety of culinary traditions from around the world. Think of large communal rounds of Ethiopian Injera bread, lamb stew eaten by hand in Kabul, a bowl of warm horse-milk passed to the right inside a Mongolian ger.
Indeed, the contemporary allure of handcrafted ceramics is itself a widespread phenomenon, as the preferences of prominent restaurants from Sydney (MoVida, Pinbone, Cho Cho San) to Copenhagen’s highly revered Noma go to show. Back in the US, Chef Christopher Kostow’s playful collaboration with Lynn Mahon for Meadowood in the Napa Valley generates rustic bowls infused with geoduck shells, feldspar and ash. Literally made of the sea-bed, they conjure up cool marine breezes that funnel through the Mayacamas Mountains to refresh St Helena, where the restaurant dwells amid vegetable gardens and lodgings in a generous two hundred fifty-acre estate. Pinbone’s Woollraha eatery (which takes its name directly from its location, also the Indigenous Australian word for “lookout”) works with not one but three ceramic artists, whose different hands equally embrace the imperfections and integrity inherent to small scale production. “For example, rough earthenware has an obvious connection to the earth and fire which is inextricably linked to the process the food goes through in getting to the plate”, says Naomi Taplin, whose smooth, neutral forms populate the restaurant.
There is a real respect for the power of materials set into this new generation of ceramics, and an attention to detail that seems to reflect a widespread desire to take it all in one bite at a time. A sun-ripened pear, a new moon, the slow tectonic grind behind our valleys and rivers and the mineral laden clays that for thousands of years we have sifted and sculpted and baked. Quietly resisting the bleak face of global consumerism, one only hopes that these forms will continue to sustain us.