Plates are functional, of course, but they’re also the canvas for food. And don’t think for a moment that canvas must be blank.
Chefs across the country are seeing plateware as the frame that holds the painting within, a vital part of the presentation. Investing in such a fragile-but-functional aspect of dining can have its highs and lows. It can bring love on Instagram, but also shattered shipping expectations and the need for rubber floors in the dishroom.
Still, chefs say it’s worth it as one piece of the restaurant’s décor that is literally presented right in front of every guest.
Miami chef Brad Kilgore, for example, whose Kilgore Culinary Group includes the restaurant Alter and soon-to-open Kaido, said you can’t put uni fondue on just any old plate.
The uni fondue will be at Kaido, Kilgore said, and “we will have these incredible custom plates from Felt & Fat in Philadelphia … they’ve created a plate with a new glaze technique to mimic the texture and look of a sea urchin for our uni fondue.”
Kilgore also recently worked with Mexican plateware firm Anfora to develop semi-custom plates for his new wood-fired grill Ember, expected to open next year. He and his wife wanted to recreate the feeling they had at a London French bistro, he said.
“Morgan Tucker from (wholesale supplier) M. Tucker sent my wife a box of these beautiful one-off artist’s plates,” Kilgore said. “There was a plate in there that caught my eye and I actually worked with Anfora and had them create custom plates combining several ideas.”
The chef said these plates have inspired his cooking.
“I just recently traveled to Mexico and purchased these petrified cactus pieces and when I got back to Alter, I put on a beef tartare that has charred cactus (nopales) folded in,” Kilgore said. “I have another dish that is on the menu and, was from the opening of Alter, where we present grouper cheeks on a blue plate so the presentation looks like a coral reef.”
Dishware inspired by nature is the calling card of Pere Gifre, a San Francisco-based artist and engineer who has designed sculpture for resorts around the world and plates for Michael Mina and many other Michelin-starred chefs.
Gifre, a Catalan native, got his start producing custom pieces for Ferran Adrià’s elBulli, where he evoked a dreamy underwater world of urchins, coral and anemones.
“I am like the set designer of the restaurant,” Gifre told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I set the stage and the food is the actors.”
Mixing and matching
Complementing the look and feel of the food is a function Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins, chef of El Jardin in San Diego, expects of her plates.
In Oaxaca and Guadalajara, she purchased the sturdy handmade plates that communicate the “rustic and substantial” vibe of El Jardin.
“I really wanted a specific look,” Zepeda-Wilkins said. “I found a plate maker in Oaxaca and fell in love with her style — all-natural materials to dye her plates … stones and minerals … I was enamored by the fact that it was so beautiful and the same price as Crate & Barrel plates.”
Zepeda-Wilkins experienced a broken heart — or at least broken plates — when she had plateware from a Mexican artisan shipped and a good portion were shattered. So now she makes the run to Mexico herself.
And the earth-toned plates, mixed and matched with others in the restaurant, speak directly to the persona of El Jardin.
“Some plates I think are beautiful but don’t really speak the tone for the food that I do,” she said. “My food is very humble and it’s based in my roots … rustic and close to the earth. I want the food to shine.”
Brown and black plates were Zepeda-Wilkins’ first idea, but soon she was seduced by “muted black and baby blues and pretty camel brown and turquoise,” she said. “And we landed on this color that’s pink but salmon and I’m obsessed with this plate, I’m always gravitating toward it.”
The chef believes mixed-and-matched plates add to the homey feel of her restaurant, harking back to the days when aunties would bring dishes over to share and leave them there, creating a kind of family-history.
“None of the plates matched at my house,” Zepeda-Wilkins said. “Every aunt would bring a dish to a party, and then that plate would live at our house.”
Japanese austerity and natural imperfections
David Schlosser, chef-owner of Shibumi, a shadowy hideaway/temple with the exterior of a dive bar and the interior of a magical-yet-austere forest, sees plateware as an element of both cuisine and culture.
“It all kind of started by the appreciation of the Japanese fine arts,” Schlosser said. “You can’t appreciate Japanese fine food if you don’t appreciate the ceramics.”
For Shibumi’s Kappo-style service — in which the chef prepares the food in front of diners — the serving vessels are, indeed, vitally important, he said. In terms of the relationship between plates and food, Schlosser thinks Japanese cuisine is unmatched.
“Nobody would say, ‘To get into French food you have to get French plates,’ or ‘To master Italian food you have to master Italian tableware.’ But you do say that for Japanese food,” he said, noting the rubber floors in the dishroom to protect that relationship.
“Ceramics are supposed to represent the earth,” he added. “You place these ceramics on a wooden table, which comes from the earth; you put the food on the earth … there’s a representation going on. It’s coming from nature, so you don’t want the food or the plates looking too modern because that’s not natural. It also makes the food seem timeless.”
Function alongside form
New York tableware artist Jono Pandolfi has made tables more beautiful at around 200 restaurants across the world, including NoMad in New York City, where Pandolfi’s organic shapes made waves from the beginning. This fall, NoMad Las Vegas is scheduled to open using about 100 of Pandolfi’s pieces.
Since restaurant plates take a lot more wear and tear than plates at home — getting stacked and slammed, hacked and chipped at an alarming rate — Pandolfi builds plates to last for restaurant clients.
It’s “mainly dark stoneware clay for a very durable body,” said Pandolfi, who first got into ceramics as a high-school student in art class. “Obviously that’s people’s first concern, so we work with really cool dark stoneware that’s super dense and doesn’t scratch.”
A new white glaze formula that Pandolfi created is his latest obsession, especially when used on a dark plate: “Dark clay with white glaze is really rustic but really modern at the same time,” he said.