Before you take a bite of your dinner, consider the dish it’s served on. Handcrafted ceramics are making a statement across Sydney’s restaurant scene. This prompted us to take a closer look at the dishes used at MoVida, Pinbone and Cho Cho San, to find out a little more about their handsome food and plate pairings, and the chefs and ceramicists behind them.
“Never underestimate the impact a plate can have on the food being presented,” says MoVida Sydney’s head chef, James Campbell. “Complementing any dish with ceramics is key.” While the popular Holt Street restaurant has earned a reputation for its colourful, Spanish-inspired shared dishes, it’s not just the food doing the work. Rustic plates and bowls decorate the tables like a mosaic, each piece different in shape, size, pattern and texture, framing the artfully presented dishes. The range was designed in collaboration with Melbourne-based ceramicist Ruth Laird Spence of Fork Ceramics.
“Being an ex-MoVida employee, Ruth has a fundamental understanding of our product and ethos,” says Campbell. “Her range very much responds to our style of cooking.” “James contacts me when he feels a special dish is needed for a certain menu item. We talk through the form and function but he leaves me a fair amount of creative rope,” says Spence.
It’s perhaps this relationship between chef and ceramicist that makes the pairing of food and plate appear so natural. “The more rustic dishes nicely balance the richness and colours of the food,” says Campbell, “whereas the bright, more modern dishes can help to lift or invigorate the ingredients being presented.” If you look closely, you may see the hand of the maker, with each piece individually thrown at the potting wheel by Spence, and then marked with her trademark fork symbol underneath. “MoVida really likes the fact that every piece of Fork Ceramics is different,” says Spence. “Every pot and plate has its own little imperfect personality … and tells people a little bit about the process of creation.”
This handcrafted aesthetic is also at the centre of Pinbone’s plating concept. Collaborating with three different Australian designers, each piece of tableware at the Woollahra eatery makes a statement – from the smooth forms and neutral tones of Naomi Taplin’s elegant tableware, to the asymmetrical and rough vessels of Alison Fraser and the earthy patterns of Denise McDonald. “We gravitate towards those designers who leave in the imperfections and embrace the randomness of hand making,” says head chef Mike Eggert. “The different shapes and undulations of our ceramics work harmoniously with our particular organic plating style.”
In addition to the aesthetic harmony of food and plate, the ceramicists also describe the very physical connection between the two through the process of making. “The relationships between the food and vessel create a story,” says Taplin. “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.”
“I think crafted plates remind diners that the food they eat is also handmade,” says Fraser. All this is part of the broader growing trend toward the handmade, says Spence, “From suppliers to makers, it’s all about being hands-on and I think plates and bowls are now a part of the movement.”
The trend has not escaped the team behind the newly-opened Cho Cho San, which has not only delighted diners with its modern take on Japanese izakaya cuisine, but the plates on which it is served. Designed in collaboration with Sydney-based ceramicist, Sally Cooper, the restaurant’s small, cream-coloured eating bowls are evenly spaced along the cement bench top of the communal eating bar, separated by the neat lines of wooden chopsticks and the glints of their gold, custom rests. “The thin lines and finesse of our ceramics really suit the lightness and freshness of our style,” says head chef, Nic Wong. Each bowl is hand-thrown in porcelain and finished in a creamy, matte glaze designed by Cooper to perfectly complement the minimal tones of the restaurant’s interior.
However, while Cho Cho San co-owner Jonathan Barthelmess is also quick to praise the artful crafting of the ceramics, he draws an important line: “Food first and ceramics second.” Speaking of the collaboration process, Cooper says, “The challenge was to make them beautiful and delicate, much like the food, but also strong enough to stand the rigours of restaurant life.” Practicality is an essential ingredient in the design of these pieces, with thicker rims and sturdy bases often integrated into the design to ensure their survival in a commercial kitchen. “When we commission our pieces we also have to think about how the plates or cups feel in the hand, how they are to eat from, what they look like when turned over and how they fit together on the table or the waiter’s hand,” says Eggert. This is where the element of collaboration is perhaps most evident, through the creation of objects that are not only beautiful, but functional, to be paired with food and shared with diners day in, day out.