Why you need custom tableware

08 January, 2018 by
Annabelle Cloros

Ceramics play an integral role in the dining experience, and Peter Gilmore and Nelly Robinson are two chefs utilising plateware for more than just presentation. 

Deviating from porcelain plates can be a tough decision, but ultimately, you can’t afford to be complacent on the tableware front. Executive chef of Quay and Bennelong Peter Gilmore and chef/owner of nel. Restaurant Nelly Robinson prove ceramics can be all things to all chefs, tapping the humble plate as a source of inspiration and collaboration.

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Eight years ago, Gilmore made a choice to go against the grain and switch to locally made tableware, citing a number of reasons behind his decision. “The evolution of my food was changing and becoming much more focused on vegetables, organic and natural presentation,” he says. “And I felt it was important to reflect that in the plate. At the same time, I wanted a new aesthetic, and I’ve always been interested in ceramics — especially Japanese ceramics — so it was a positive change.”

For Robinson, opting for unique plateware was a matter of standing out from the crowd. “We don’t want guests to feel any sense of déjà vu when eating at nel.,” he says. “We design certain dishes to a certain bowl/plate and we want the customer to walk away and be shocked in the flavours and the crockery we use.”

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Gilmore agrees with this sentiment and has a shared outlook when it comes to the role ceramics play in a diner’s experience. “I think the plate is a frame to your dish,” he says. “When people come into a restaurant like Quay or Bennelong, they want to be surprised and want to have something they haven’t seen somewhere else.”

Ticking all the boxes when it comes to diner experience is almost becoming a necessity as educated customers not only care about the roots of their food and drink, but where the plate they’re eating off came from and who made it. Both Robinson and Gilmore have close relationships with the makers of their ceramics, and the process is truly a collaborative one.

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“The first person I started working with was Paul Davis, who is a master ceramicist,” says Gilmore. “We started working together on a couple of different plates and that relationship has really evolved over the past eight years. He probably makes 60 percent of all the plates in Quay and Bennelong, but I also work with other Australian artists including Malcolm Greenwood [Sydney] and Ben Richardson [Tasmania].” Thanks to Gilmore’s steady stream of demand, Davis almost exclusively provides ceramics to Quay and Bennelong. “I keep them pretty busy,” he admits. “Every year, I’m commissioning new plates because menu items change and you come up with new ideas. A lot of the time I’m thinking about a dish when I’m thinking about the plate that’s been made.”

Robinson takes cues from particular plates and bowls when it comes to creating dishes, so his relationship with ceramicists is incredibly important. “We have a couple of companies we deal with and I even have my senior sous chef Andy Ashby on the phone constantly looking for the best products with that point of difference,” says Robinson. “We have a great relationship with our bespoke crockery company Marloe Marloe from Queensland, who makes most of our dishes, plates, coffee cups, etc. We are very lucky — she is extremely passionate and understands the nel. brand to perfection.”

A close relationship with a maker has a number of benefits, with bespoke orders and education ranking high on the list. Gilmore continues to work closely with Davis to evolve and tweak his venues’ ceramics. “There are a lot of really beautiful ceramics made from all sorts of different clays, but some of the clays are more fragile,” Gilmore tells Hospitality. “Some of the stuff that’s wood-fired and raku [Japanese firing technique] along with some of the matt glazes look fantastic, but they don’t stand up to restaurant wear and tear. That’s been a bit of a learning curve, and these days, we have worked out how far we can push things. So the corners need to be rounded and slightly thicker to handle the wear and tear as well as reasonably high fired. Paul is a magician with glazes and he’s worked on a series of matt glazes that are a lot more durable and harder. You need to work with someone who knows what they’re doing.”

As custom plates come at a price, it’s important for venues to educate wait staff and ensure ceramics are stored and handled properly to avoid breakage. “Some pieces are very fragile, so we don’t want them going through the dishwasher,” says Robinson. “We have to hot hand wash every single one. A kitchen steward is a very important part of your team and if you have a weak link in that position, it can show. At nel., we wash over 900 plates on a Friday and Saturday night, so the kitchen hand has to be both careful and quick.”

At Quay and Bennelong, staff understand the workmanship that goes into making the venues’ ceramics, so they take extra care when handling them. “We train our kitchenhands and waiters to be more careful with these plates,” says Gilmore. “We stack certain plates with a cloth between them when we put them in the hot box. They pretty much all go through the dishwasher, but you’ve just got to be a little bit more careful with how you stack them. You just don’t want to bash them together and you don’t want them to chip. Like any plate, you’ve got to treat it with a bit of respect. It was about making sure the staff knew these plates were a little bit more delicate than the ones they were working with before and to take more care putting them in the racks and taking them out.”

Handmade ceramics naturally cost more than a stock-standard plate, so are they worth the extra expense? For Gilmore and Robinson, it’s a safe investment that reaps significant rewards from the kitchen to the floor. “They are extremely expensive because they are so unique,” says Robinson. “We try and purchase new wares every few months, depending on menus and ideas, as we are constantly striving to become the best we can.”

With all the consideration, care and workmanship required to create these ceramics, Gilmore believes they pay for themselves in a relatively short timeframe. “When you think about how many times they’re used over the course of a year, you’ve got a plate that’s in the thousands of uses,” he says. “Compared to the plates we used [previously], we replace them a bit more often, but I think it’s worth it in the aesthetic that we’re getting and the fact that they’re handmade and Australian made.

“With menu changes, you might not use some plates, so they go into storage and then six months later, we will come up with another idea and that plate suits that new dish. We have a bit of a store and turnaround on plates, so it’s a reasonably big investment, but at that level of fine dining, it’s part of the cost of keeping things interesting.”

The verdict is clear — just as certain dishes tell a story, so should the ceramics they are presented on. You wouldn’t use an old piece of meat, so why serve up an old white plate?

Image credit: Nikki To

This article originally appeared in Hospitality‘s November issue. Subscribe here.