That Plate, It Becomes You

Anne McBride - January/February 2014

Over the last 25 years, more and more chefs have added the word owner to their job titles, turning their restaurants into reflections of their aesthetic values. The tableware they selected has followed suit.

    A square, an oval, a shell, a leaf, a gourd, a doll-sized thimble, an oversized platter. Porcelain, slate, earthenware, wood. Today’s tabletop is as varied as the styles of cooking it’s meant to showcase. Long gone are the patterned plates of the 1980s, replaced by more unique ways for chefs to convey their creativity, from the kitchen to the table.

    The evolution in tableware reflects that of the chef over the past 25 years. Or perhaps more accurately, the evolution of the chef is reflected by tableware. Decisions related to what glasses or butter plate would be used were most often the purview of management. But as restaurateurs began to consult with their chefs, and those chefs in turn became chef/owners, tableware selections more often than not came from those conceptualizing the dishes and cooking them. Today, tableware is no longer just a vehicle for food but has become part of the entire experience of dining. It’s a canvas for chefs—literally, in the case of the white tableware that has become prevalent throughout restaurants, whether it is as large plates and bowls or as a variety of shapes that allow the chef to deconstruct or miniaturize a dish, challenging diners’ way of eating.

    “In the past 20 to 30 years, chefs have become more important and more influential,” says Jonathan Benno of Lincoln Ristorante in New York City. “I think people care a lot more about the dining experience than they did 20, 30 years ago—not just at Per Se or Alinea, but also at the trattoria down the street. So everything that the guest touches during the dining experience has become more important. China, silverware, glassware: it’s all part of the experience.” Restaurateurs and hotel f&bs are of course choosing, but the design is more and more often chef driven.

    Lois Bloom, a tabletop consultant and co-author, with Patricia Boyer, of the tabletop column in Food Arts since 1992, explains the evolution in tableware by the general casualization of dining, even at the fine dining level, that’s taken place over the past two decades. “Dining was much more formal; it’s evolved with what’s going on,” she explains. “And then in high-end restaurants, prix-fixe menus are very controlled, and they can do whatever they want; and they try, with the plates.”

    Plates have drastically increased in size, Bloom notes, adding one to two inches to sizes that were standard in the 1980s. A dinner plate is often 12 inches, with an appetizer plate 8 1/2 to 9 inches. The plating surface might be small, as is the case with the deep, wide rimmed bowl into which a tasting menu–sized soup will be ladled.

    No dramatic revolution seems to have happened that caused a change in the style of tableware used by chefs. Bloom began observing a shift in the mid-1990s, at both the fine dining and casual level, as a group movement. Articles in trade and consumer media in the mid-2000s point to another surge of change. Plates were no longer just round, and white became the color of choice.

    Having available plates of varying shapes and sizes allowed chefs to push their diners’ boundaries in relation to the act of eating itself. Suddenly, a dining experience was no longer as straightforward as using a fork and knife to consume food—protein, starch, vegetable, garnish, sauce—arranged in the center of a recognizably round plate. “Putting the same idea and the same components of a dish in different parts of the plate made the diner search,” says Curtis Duffy, chef/owner of Grace in Chicago. “Even if serving the smallest two-bite dish, chefs put it on the largest dish possible. It was minimal, looked amazing, and made the food pop. A smaller plate with patterns didn’t look as good. That trend has definitely gone away.”

    White allows for a focus on the food, not distracting from the intent of the chef: “In the mid-’90s everything was all white again, whatever the shape,” adds Duffy. “It led the chefs to look at the plate as a canvas. It lent itself more easily to focus on the food and not the pattern of the plate. The pattern distracted from what should be center stage, the food.”

    No matter how striking or sophisticated a plate, knife, or glass is, it must first and foremost remain functional. “You can’t pour a liquid into something the diner can’t easily scoop it out of,” Duffy stresses. Pieces must look good on the table, but also feel good in the hands of the diners. When eating a dish, guests should not be confused by tableware that does not allow them to consume the food or that muddies a chef’s intent.

    As more and more chefs and restaurateurs aim to reduce the gap between nature and cuisine as much as possible by using foraged ingredients and presenting dishes in stripped-down platings, varieties of tableware that are more naturalistic have appeared. They range from earthenware, such as the ever popular Heath Ceramics, a company out of Sausalito, California, that has been in operation since the mid-20th century and has seen a surge in popularity in restaurants that want to stress a natural ethos, to shell- or leaf-like vessels, such as those used by Dominique Crenn at Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, or pieces of slate and wood, as might be seen at Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York.

    Gone are the days of plates and platings that look and feel overwrought and overly complicated. The lines are simpler, both in the food and on the tableware. But simple plates often belie intricate and complex preparations. Simplicity does not mean cheap—quality remains the most important factor for discriminate chefs and restaurateurs. While they take breakage and durability into account first and foremost when deciding what they can afford, they feel that tableware must represent their ethos. It’s part of the voice they want to convey from the moment a guest arrives in their establishment. More options in tableware allow for these voices to be expressed more personally than ever and to distinguish themselves to an even more refined point.

    “We wanted to use the finest material possible,” Duffy says. “For us, it was about going back to the elegance and refinement of dining. We’re not going to be the restaurant that never follows a trend because we’re trying to be original. You need to have one voice and stick with it.”

    Showcasing one’s unique voice has marketing value. “We think a lot more about tabletop today than we ever have,” Benno says. “The restaurant business has become more competitive. Anything you can do to give your restaurant an edge is good, whether it’s a beautiful earthenware piece, bread basket, et cetera. It’s all for the benefit of the guest. It makes the experience more memorable.”

    It’s not rare for chefs to collaborate with tabletop designers for a couple of custom pieces they can add to their table. Some arrangements carry exclusive holding of a piece, but most often, for financial reasons, a piece designed with one chef becomes part of the tabletop company’s catalog, making it available to all. Benno designed two such pieces with Steelite when he opened his restaurant: a serving piece for olive oil and a spread, and a duo bowl for split or shared items.

    Others get to design complete lines in collaboration with a designer—but those remain the exclusive privilege of a few. Thomas Keller designed a line with Raynaud, called Hommage, made of Limoges porcelain. Grant Achatz has been working with Crucial Detail designer Martin Kastner to create tableware unique not just to Alinea, Next, or The Aviary but to the restaurant world. Through that particular collaboration, Achatz has also been able to challenge the way food is consumed and diners’ relations to their meals, making it both more interactive and less straightforward. Some chefs also work with local potters.

    Chefs show no sign of losing either influence on the public or interest in ensuring that every aspect of their restaurant represents their unique voice. From grace and sophistication to naturalism and sparsity, what sits on the table reflects just as much of a creative intent as what comes out of the kitchen. It’s impossible to predict what the next 25 years will bring in tableware development. But it seems safe to say that chefs will be a strong voice in its evolution.

    Previous image: The white on white aesthetic triumphed a decade ago, as exemplified by this spoon platter with deep spoons from Steelite International, on which Ryan Poli showcased crudo and caviar when he opened Butter in Chicago.

    Above: Manresa’s David Kinch relies on the daily harvest at local Love Apple Farms. Plate by Annie Glass.

    Metal surfaces lent a fresh look to holloware in 2009. “Long Dash” tray by Orion Trading & Design. “Tempo” coffee pot by D.W. Haber & Son.

    Grant Achatz employs a super-sized bowl to add drama to a presentation. Plate by Steelite International.

    At Bar Tartine in San Francisco, Nicolas Balla sends out a selection of smørrebrød on a wooden tray by local Jesse Schlesinger.

    The Antiplate is one of the innovations to emerge from Achatz’s collaboration with Crucial Detail’s Martin Kastner, now mass-produced by Steelite International.

    Christopher Kostow worked closely with local artisans when he renovated his Restaurant at Meadowood. Bowl by Lynn Mahon.

    Kostow grows plate inspiration from plateware itself. Bowl by NBC Pottery.

    Elevation and multiplicity: Rosenthal’s “Nendoo” étagère is 12.6” high and holds four 6” plates. “Tri-Bowl Balanced” from Carrol Boyes.

    Dan Barber at NYC’s Blue Hill elevated the status of vegetables when he nailed fresh crudités on a miniature fence.

    Cones carried the carbs in this new shape that chefs adopted to hold French fries or breads. Wire cone basket by Clipper Mill; condiment dish by Rosenthal; glass by Schott Zwiesel.

    Michael Mina’s penchant for trios led him to contract with Royal Doulton to custom-make china when he opened his eponymous restaurant in San Francisco in 2005.

    In recent years, slate became the plate as shown here at San Francisco’s Commonwealth, inspiring slate plate collections from several tableware manufacturers.