A platter of taste: the best restaurant ceramics

The days of classic china in fine-dining restaurants are long gone. Chefs now work directly with makers to create tableware that adds high drama to the story of food

Black chicken legs dish Rest restaurant in Oslo
Photographer Stian Broch

At Marsan, the new Paris restaurant of chef Hélène Darroze, diners are welcomed with a palate-cleansing consommé, served in a bowl imprinted with the palm lines of Darroze and her daughter. The bowl and the plate on which it stands were a collaboration with the french ceramicist Ema Pradere, and represent fertility, maternity and giving birth. ‘It expresses a very feminine side of my practice’ says the Michelin-starred chef.

Not long ago, the food styling rulebook decreed that to showcase culinary crafts, white tableware was essential. Certainly through the 1990s and early 2000s, fine dining establishments wouldn’t risk a cluttered canvas to present their edible artworks. Now you’d be hard pushed to find a white china plate exiting the kitchens of our master chefs.

Two food revolutions that have dominated the past 20 years, molecular and New Nordic cuisines, have fed the phenomenon. They are often credited with changing how we eat, but they have also upended the tools and trappings of the dining table. Accessorising a menu has itself become a creative pursuit, entwined with the chef’s artistry. Makers and chefs now collaborate closely to create serveware that extends the story told by the food. ‘Now it’s not just about going out to have food, but to have an experience and enter the world of the chef,’ says Darroze.

‘NOW IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT EATING, BUT TO HAVE AN EXPERIENCE AND ENTER THE WORLD OF THE CHEF’

An early protagonist in the design of the molecular table was Martin Kastner of Crucial Design, a blacksmith turned designer and innovator who teamed with Chicago’s Grant Aschatz to create the bespoke pieces required by the mad-science approach the chef has to his food at Alinea. He is still inventing for the likes of TAK room in New York (recently a custom butter twirler).

KH Würtz studio in Jutland, Denmark, meanwhile, was founded by father and son ceramicists Aage and Kasper Würtz in the early 2000’s when they sensed there was a renewed thirst for hand thrown stoneware and they were well place to pick up the call for experimental earthy ceramics from Noma and the New Nordic crew. They have set the tone for a whole generation of chef-maker collaborations.

Chefs often pick and chose work from across a number of studios – Darroze is also working with the Israeli ceramicist Noam Rosenberg to produce a plate with a strong red glaze specifically for a white-toned dish of scallops, white truffle and parmesan emulation, while also working with Sarah Linda Forrer on shell-like pieces for specific dishes. Simon Rogan of Fera at Claridges, L’Enclume, and now Henrock, is perhaps the UK’s most prolific commissioner of bespoke tableware, and works with ceramicists across Europe, including KH Würtz, Odd Standard, Paul Mossman, and Cara Guthrie.

Here we profile some of the food world’s favoured makers:

Odd Standard

Constance Gaard Kristiansen and Tonje Sandberg of Odd Standard
Odd Standard

Perfectly positioned geographically to feed the New Nordic hunger for bespoke tableware that speaks to the terroir, Stavanger-based designers Constance Gaard Kristiansen and Tonje Sandberg (trained in ceramic and industrial design respectively) formed Odd Standard in 2014, specifically to feed the plating fantasies of chefs. The pair’s brilliance in the field has meant their work adorns tables across Scandinavia and beyond.

Recent collaborations in the UK include City Social, The Yard, Da Terra and L’Enclume. ‘We have a close relationship with Simon Rogan and a recent project with him has been revitalising a piece of tableware that has been iconic to L'Enclume – a porcelain sack resting on ceramic bases.’ says Sandberg.

Development sacks by odd standard for simon rogan
Porcelain sacks by Odd Standard for Simon Rogan
Simon Rogan

Their projects for local restaurants have seen a particularly high degree of customisation. Rest, an Oslo restaurant that opened last year, uses food waste. ‘The tableware was developed to enhance this message, and was made from 100% recycled glass and from recycled clay from our microfactory,’ says Sandberg. ‘The most characteristic piece is a plate with chicken feet – real chicken feet – as a comment on the large quantity of hens that are thrown away each year. The feet have been dried and treated with food-safe black coating.’

chicken feet plate from Rest in Oslo
Odd Standard’s chicken-feet platters
Odd Standard

For the reopening this year of Renaa, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Stavanger, they created several pieces, including a ceramic beetroot. ‘The design of our products is not finished until the chef has put it to use. A plate or bowl in itself can be a nice item, but transforms with the food. 1+1= 3!’ oddstandard.no

Luke Hope

Luke Hope
Photographer Xanthe Berkeley

Luke Hope is a born-again creative, who returned in 2014 to his art-school roots after 20 years continent-hopping for more corporate pursuits. Finding equilibrium in the meditative practice of wood carving, he has since been coaxing sycamore, walnut and ancient bog oak into exquisitely refined sculptures that are often both functional and fantastical in form and texture. A commission from James Baron, chef at Austria’s the Tannenhof, for some spoons on which to serve his amuse-bouches, interrupted the peace of Hope’s new pursuit, and set him on a path to produce tableware to order for top tables around the world.

Spalted beech spoons for Hide restaurant by Luke Hope
Spalted beech spoons for Ollie Dabbous of Hide
.Hide

In the past year alone, his chef-commissioned oeuvre includes walnut bowls and spoons for chef Atsushi Tanaka at Restaurant A.T, Paris; spalted beech spoons for Ollie Dabbous of Hide, London; pinch pots for Patrick Powell of Allegra, London; and Sycamore bowls for Peter Gilmore of Quay, Sydney.

While wood isn’t the obvious choice for the relentless cycle of use in restaurants, the individuality of hand carving speaks to the modern-day story-telling needs of chefs while Hope has developed ways to ensure his work’s durability.’ he explains. ‘I sand to a particular level, soak, dry, lift hairs, and sand them off five times. Then I oil.’ He supplies the restaurants with a wood balm he formulates from mineral oil and beeswax. At the newly opened 12 seater, Ernst, in Berlin, they clean his bespoke spoons at the end of each night and ply them with balm. lukehope.co

Sarah Linda Forrer

sarah-linda forrer portrait
.Sarah-Linda Forrer

Forrer conducted her studies at Design Academy Eindhoven, a laboratory of concept-driven design, and so is not the maker but the thinker behind a number of chef collaborations. Born in the Pyrenees, she is now Amsterdam-based, and made her first foray into accessorising chefs’ tables via a collaboration with the Amsterdam-based, globe-hopping experimental supperclub Steinbeisser. Keeping her design lines close to those nature supplies, her collection she produced for the supperclub’s Lloyd Hotel, Amsterdam event were ‘spoons’ made from alabaster and speck stone.

alabaster and speck spoons  for the supper club’s Lloyd Hotel, Amsterdam,
‘Spoons’ made from alabaster and speck stone supperclub’s Lloyd Hotel, Amsterdam event
Sarah-Linda Forrer

She took the unusual step of taking her subsequent shell-shaped dish designs to Hélène Darroze, who saw a synergy with some of her own cooking and has developed them with Forrer to fit the menu at Marsan, and also the Connaught. She has since designed commissioned plates for Stefan van Sprang of restaurant Aan de Poel in the Netherlands, and for Pavyllon, Yannick Alléno’s new Paris address.

.Sarah-Linda Forrer shell shaped plates
Shell-shaped dish designs for Hélène Darroze
Sarah-Linda Forrer

Forrer works with a Limoges porcelain manufacturer and feels the challenges of the discipline keenly, ‘I design very much from a concept – reconnecting people with their food and breaking table taboos – and a visual signature, but it doesn’t always translate easily into producible strong plates. There are many factors to take into account when designing for a restaurant, and it’s about finding the limits of these factors, which allows me to design something that makes people think and eat in a different way, gives them a new experience, but that’s still usable in a busy restaurant.’ sarahlindaforrer.com

Owen Wall

Owen Wall designer maker
Owen Wall

Owen Wall is a one man microfactory, juggling ideas, experimentation and production (some of which he has semi-automated with the studio addition of a jigger/jolly machine), for a great number of influential chefs. Wrangling with his inability to find time to feed an instagram account, you get the impression Wall has his nose in clay most of his days when not chatting to his considerable portfolio of chef friends about their upcoming requirements.

Pedestals for Erchen Chang at Bao and Xu
Pedestals for Erchen Chang at Bao and Xu
Owen Wall

An MA in Ceramics and Glass at The Royal Academy of Arts in 2008 set him on the path to designing restaurant ware. With some foresight, on his RA page he wrote ‘I see my future in designing for hotels and restaurants. These vibrant social arenas offer exciting opportunities for a designer. They are ‘real’ settings where work can subtly subvert, provoke thought, be passive or highly interactive, enhancing the social experience.’

cow plate for Jeremy Chan of Ikoyi restaurant
‘Cow plate’ for Jeremy Chan of Ikoyi
Photographer PA Jorgensen

For ten years he has been doing just that for London talent such as Isaac McHale of the Clove Club and Luca; Adam Byatt at Trinity, Clapham and newly at Charlie’s, Brown’s Hotel; Erchen Chang at Bao and Xu; Jeremy Chan of Ikoyi (see above, a black and white plate they call the ‘cow plate’ among others, and is in the process of producing a tiger stripe design for a new dish); Patrick Powell at Allegra and he has recently worked with Merlin Labron-Johnson for his new ‘tiny’ restaurant, Osip, Opening late November in Bruton, Somerset.

Wall senses a slight backlash against the crafty look, recently having worked on pieces with a finer finish and detailing - with Labron-Johnson the aesthetic is considerably pared back. owenwall.co.uk

Lisa Ommanney

Lisa Ommanney ceramicist
.Lisa Ommanney

Ommanney, a Hackney-based ceramist and fine art graduate of London Guildhall University, hand-builds raw, timeless and often unglazed pieces. Her first big commission was for 800 plates – with an eight week turnaround (for London’s Firedog, now closed). ‘It was a steep learning curve,’ she muses.

More recently, Ollie Dabbous of Hide, London came knocking on her door for her ragged-edged vessels. ‘The design of the restaurant space echoes nature, with subtle and beautiful suggestions of trees, woodland, nests – the forms of my vessels fit well with the aesthetic,’ says Ommanney. ‘We agreed that the glazes would be matt, and we focused on earthy tones – a rich brown and a soft, cool cream. These make a great foil for the stunning and often colourful dishes that Ollie designs.’

lisa ommanney vessel for hide restaurant
Vessels for Ollie Dabbous of Hide
Hide

It was important to Ommanney that she maintain the ‘unique landscape’ of each edge while ensuring consistency in the dimensions and volume of the vessels. ‘There was a lot of measuring, trimming and re-measuring.’ Another consideration was that the glazes feel comfortable to drag cutlery across – if too matt the scrape of metal across it can put teeth on edge. ‘In a nutshell, fine but not fragile, unique but consistent, matte but not too matte, ragged-edged but not inaccessible,’ says Ommanney. ‘A Goldilocks object!’

Now in the early stages of a collaboration with a chef who focuses on foraging and sustainability, she is exploring new forms, glazes and techniques. ‘These types of commissions are a brilliant opportunity to develop and expand new ideas.’ lisaommanney.com

This article appeared in the January 2020 issue of ELLE Decoration

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