Chefs on plates - it's no crock

MICHELLE ROBINSON
Last updated 05:00 17/11/2013

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Forget the food. Bespoke and collectable tableware is the next frontier in restaurant supremacy. Michelle Robinson meets some chefs who care as much about the crockery as what they cook.

WOOD-FIRED CERAMICS

Chef Nic Watt talks about the wood-fired ceramics he uses at his Masu robata restaurant in central Auckland:

I worked with Japanese ceramic sculptor Ryusei Arita for 10 years and I commissioned him to make our chinaware and ceramics.

He built this beautiful wood-fired kiln in the Oak Valley in California and he hand-makes the ceramics instead of doing them in a modern gas-fired kiln.

It's called anagama pottery and needs 24 hours around-the-clock heating. A lot of it needs kiln drying for three days.

Each plate is worth $500-$600. We have special handmade ceramic pieces that represent metre-long sections of bamboo cut lengthways. They are a creamy white colour - we have four of them. We fill them with crushed ice and sashimi, or use them for dessert platters.

Masu is a sharing concept. We don't have an individual dessert each - we do them in fours or sixes, serve them with fruit and icecream and put them down the centre of the table.

We also have four beautiful handmade large round bowls for decoration and for serving sashimi in, and one very large pot for decoration.

Because they are all handmade, every one's different; it's an artist's touch. Some of these plates are literally 4cm thick and the glazes, whilst a consistent colour, are unique.

You can see the brush stroke; you can see how the heat has blown across the plate as it's dried... the stone, the glaze and the colour coming through; it's stunning.

The bowls are more earthy browns and caramels. Japanese ceramics are very important. It's all in keeping in with the theme to use a contemporary Japanese artist to create some very unique pieces.

Our customers love it - they're head turners. These are very unique, very expensive, beautiful handmade pieces, so I've always had a small selection in the restaurant.

It makes more of a statement. Our hashioki ceramic chopstick stands sometimes disappear. I'm not sure what people use them for, but they just disappear. But I'm not sure anyone could walk out with one of our bamboos.

BONE-HANDLED KNIVES

Chef Sean Connolly talks about the bone-handled knives and beef-shin napkin rings that accompany dishes at his central Auckland restaurant The Grill:

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I was trying to create the ultimate steak house; that's it. I just wanted it to be heavily themed. I wanted people to walk in and be under no illusion they were walking into the best steak house in New Zealand.

You've got bone handled knives, bone napkin rings - we're passionate about meat. It's a bit of fun as well. When you walk into a restaurant these days it's about creating theatre. Everything you touch, everything you see, the smells. A bit like walking onto a big movie set.

I use bone-handled knives made by Peter Lorimer, a second-generation knife-maker from Central Otago. The bone handles are made from beef shin so they age quite nicely; they're a beautiful bright white.

His wife's actually a jeweller so they made napkin rings for us as well. You slice them down the centre. You boil the bones - bleach them if you like - boil them clean, and make them into knife handles and napkin rings.

We have 120 knives. We've already lost a couple over time. I don't know if they ended up in the bin or someone's pocket.

I think it's really important when you're at the top of your game and passionate about your own craft, you want to be associated with other people who are at the top of their game. It's just an appreciation of art. It's about creating something special that no one else has.

In all my restaurants I've had bespoke. I've got an amazing cheeseboard made by a woodman in New Zealand. It's three or four inches thick and sits at the front of the restaurant. It holds 14 different cheeses on it.

It's a luxurious position to be in, to afford this kind of stuff. For me, it's all about investing back into New Zealand.

Every chef wants to do something different. You have to stand out from the crowd. The last thing you want to do is look vanilla. Vanilla is not cool.

CROWN LYNN AND ANTIC PLATES

Chef Roy McFarlane talks about an eclectic mix of Crown Lynn and fine antique plates used in his service at cafe The Canteen, Wellington:

We wanted the best part of quite iconic plates - to put a bit of Kiwiana New Zealand back into the shop without it being cheesey.

The building's new so the vintage crockery softens it a bit; it's a bit of history. We do get comments from elderly ladies who have asked about the plates in the collection. It's a bit of nostalgia for them.

There are really cool patterns on some of the Crown Lynn plates; they are from the '70s and '80s. They are all different: one's pastel pink, one's white with blue flowers, one of them's grey and another is cream and gold.

They are hand-painted and quite fragile. Some have been broken. You can never have too many nice things. We started off with 15 and we have 11 now.

I love art deco things. Vintage crockery is not easily found in Wellington without paying a massive amount of money.

We actually found a lot of Crown Lynn crockery in Napier, but halfway between here and Napier we found a second-hand store on the side of the road. I think (the seller) was probably stoned. We got a Crown Lynn jug for $125 with the army emblem. It's my favourite piece. We got seven or eight fine plates for $5.

Sometimes people steal our antique teaspoons - these long anorexic silver teaspoons with a fern leaf embedded in the hilt. We bought 12 and there are four left. And also our water bottles, which are old sherry flagons from the 1940s.

Some people steal books and cushions. It's certainly not going to stop me from doing it because it's something I enjoy. This is an extension of our home.

We don't pretend to be something we're not. We don't do deconstruction or infusion. A lot of the product we do here is not fashionable - it's old school - but that's what I grew up with.

CUSTOM-MADE CLAY WARE

Chef Sid Sahrawat talks about serving courses on custom-made clay ware at his fine dining restaurant Sidart in Ponsonby, Auckland:

I'm in the process of replacing every plate with bespoke ware by Auckland potter Peter Collis. Everything is made specifically for the restaurant: you can custom-make the size, textures, colours and glazes. We designed these together.

It's a very Scandinavian approach to make yourown plates. You look at the trends in Copenhagen or Sweden and it's all really sustainable. Everything's made by local artisan people.

I think it's the best way for a small personalised restaurant, to make your own things. If someone's doing a 10-course tasting menu, each one has a different plate.

It's a bit like how an artist can't have enough canvases. You've got a sea blue, and one almost the colour of a cloud - a bluish white... a grey, a brown and an almost black plate with crackles and specks. There are 12 different kinds.

You can see the Auckland skyline from the restaurant, so that's the inspiration for the beautiful blue wash of the plates. And they are completely different to each other. That's why it takes time.

They have zinc in them so it's quite engaging in terms of the texture. It's almost like a concrete kind of feel; a hard, solid slab - bang bang, but in a nice way.

A bit medieval, almost like a sand wash andquite abrasive, though some have a smooth finish. Diners comment all the time on how it's different to eat off than a ceramic plate.

You have to think about what course you do with what dish. Our food is very fresh, very seasonal and quite spontaneous.

We're really into vegetables cooked into crusts. We try not to focus just on protein. About 95 per cent of the crockery is made by Peter Collis now.

We only have five per cent mass produced plates and we're getting rid of them as well. It takes time, about three weeks to perfect the design.

I had an idea and Peter Collis had an idea, and it took almost one-and-a-half to two years to get it perfect. But that's the beauty of it. When you get it done it looks amazing.

Auckland chef photography by Michael Bradley, Roy McFarlane photographed by Matt Duncan/ Fairfax NZ.

- Sunday Star Times

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