Reading the menu at a restaurant has become much more than scanning a list of dishes. In addition to ingredients there is a list of names; sometimes it’s the names of staff, sometimes it’s the names of farms. And increasingly, it’s the name of the person who made the plates.
No, it’s not just another way Portlandia skits are mimicking reality. Chefs across the country are taking a look at mass-produced generic plates and chucking them for pieces they feel more accurately reflect the level of care and consideration that goes into what’s placed upon them.
It’s people like Kristi Borrone, who from 2010 to 2013 ran the restaurant Station 1 in Woodside, California. “It’s amazing how difficult it can be to figure out what plates you’re going to use for your restaurant. For us it was really important. We wanted to find something that our guests could connect to,” Borrone says.
Everything Borrone and her staff made in house was from scratch -“we didn’t open a can for anything” – so it was important to her to take their handmade food and put it on handmade plates.
She found San Francisco-based Lisa Neimeth, a ceramicist who describes her work as being pieces that appear to be fine art but are actually “highly functional,” and approached her about making every plate Station 1 would use. The initial order was nearly 500 plates.
“And they pretty much gave me full license to do what I wanted. They wanted the base color all to be white, but other than that, just anything I wanted. Every single plate was different,” says Neimeth.
Of course, they weren’t the same white one thinks of when thinking of a white dinner plate. And, Neimeth’s plates are rolled out by hand, each wholly its own with stamps and whorls and tiny imperfections.
“People just fell in love with her work. I mean, they enjoyed their meal but they fell in love with that part of the experience,” Borrone says. Although Station 1 has closed, Borrone is working to open another restaurant, Kristi Marie’s, and will still be using some of Neimeth’s work.
Some might think it’s silly – putting this much thought into what food gets set upon – but for chefs like Borrone and Portland, Oregon’s Jenn Louis, plates are where everything begins. Louis, author of the recently released cookbook Pasta by Hand and owner of Sunshine Tavern and Lincoln Restaurant, says even a slight chip is enough to send a piece of porcelain to the bin.
“If a plate goes out that has a chip in it, we’re saying what’s on the plate doesn’t matter,” Louis says. For her, investing in plates became a priority that only became more apparent after she met Austin, Texas-based ceramicist Keith Kreeger.
Louis was scheduled to host a dinner during Feast (a Portland food festival) last year and invited Kreeger to lend her some plates to use during a course of the dinner. It’s like when someone gives me an ingredient – it’s the same kind of thing. He gives me a plate, and just like you take an ingredient, you take a surface and you think about it,” she says.
Louis notes the experience was “awesome,” and after Kreeger departed – and left many of his pieces with her – she found herself using them more and more. Kreeger, who got his start running a contemporary craft gallery on Cape Cod moved to Austin in 2009. While he’s always created serving bowls and pitchers, it wasn’t until 2010 that he began making tableware his focus.
“How you serve something matters… chefs are elevating their food and I think the right plate can help elevate it to that next step. I think chefs understand that it plays a role for the diner who notices, for the server who notices. “There’s a difference between bringing something that wasn’t made in a factory to the table,” he says.
Of course, there are concerns when it comes to stocking high dollar plates. Walk into the back of any restaurant and there’s sure to be a bucket filled with shards of porcelain and glass – a graveyard of broken bits dropped by staff or patrons. According to Borrone, eliminating waste due to breakage was as easy as having a conversation with staff.
“Accidents happen, and if someone accidentally dropped one there was so much guilt by the people who worked there, I mean, if anything broke. But I have to say, people were really careful, we had a great dishwasher from the beginning to the end who was fantastic. We had a system and people followed the system and it worked pretty well.”
Additionally, specialty plates cost more – and in the restaurant world of razor-thin margins, not every chef or owner is willing to shell out big bucks for something they can grab at Ikea for $3. But that hasn’t stopped chef Doug Weiler from trying. Weiler, who’s been at Portland, Oregon’s hybrid coffee house/art space Glyph Café has slowly been transitioning his plates from all white to ones with splashes of color and hopes to take the plunge to handmade soon.
“There’s beauty in imperfection, both in nature and in man made things, and my personal preference would definitely be handmade ceramic plates,” Weiler says. Like Lincoln or Station 1, Glyph is a space where the food is as important as the art on the walls, making it an easier discussion for Weiler to have with the owners.
“The food is also being looked at as art, and putting the art on the proper canvas. You wouldn’t want to paint on something that wasn’t appropriate,” he says. But as with art, the final hesitation some might have when it comes to handmade plates is the appeal of the steal. Both Neimeth and Kreeger admitted to hearing stories about what people will attempt to take from restaurants; from salt and pepper shakers to glassware. But would anyone really try to steal a plate?
“The only story I heard was that a woman tried to walk out with a plate in her bra,” says Neimeth with a laugh. “I get a lot of calls from people who have dined at these restaurants and want to talk about buying plates for their home. So, I’m sure there’s got to be loss but I haven’t heard of anyone stealing a 12 inch dinner plate. It would be very humbling to know that people wanted my stuff so bad,” says Kreeger.
Jackie Varriano is a freelance writer based in Oregon. When she’s not at her computer or in the kitchen, you can usually find her elbowing her way to the front at concerts or holed up in the cookbook section of any used book store. She what she’s up to on Instagram @jackievarriano.