The oft-understated crockery is the canvas on which each chef expresses his ideas and vision. By the kitchen pass, the mosaic of each course has been planned out: sauce, sides, protein and, lastly, the garnish, all deftly arranged on the assigned dish and presented on the dining table.
But there’s more to the piece of porcelain than it being a blank slate. It is the artful conduit between chef and diner, enriching the experience or meaning of the course. Plates, after all, are essential to plating. Foodsmiths are now venturing into creating unique, dedicated crockery to highlight and personalise their dishes. Top chefs in Singapore share the inspiration behind their concepts with us.
A FRESH START
Chef Leong Chee Yeng’s artistic flair extends beyond the kitchen. The executive chef of Jade Restaurant at The Fullerton Hotel is a poet, a painter and an accomplished ceramicist. For the last 20 years, Leong has been creating his own plates after being unable to find suitable crockery for his dishes. He occasionally visits Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle at Jalan Bahar (otherwise he uses his own kiln at home) to create unique pieces which he uses at the restaurant during Chinese New Year or when serving important guests.
Of late, Leong’s focus in ceramics has been vases. During Jade’s recent revamp, his works were pushed into the limelight to complement the Chinese restaurant’s refreshed interior design. Still, he has not abandoned creating customised crockery for the restaurant.
The chef commissioned an artist to customise a design for a charger plate, a smaller serving plate and teapot inspired by a gelatine sculpture of a bird perched on a willow tree he had made years ago. The customised tableware serves as an aesthetic connection with the restaurant’s pastel blue wallpaper of birds frolicking in a garden, also designed by the same artist.
This delicate showcase serves as a visual welcome to the dining table, according to chef Leong. At the table, diners are first acquainted with the charger plate, decked in the same robin egg-blue colours of Jade’s wallpaper. The peacock, roosting on the edge of the plate, is a creative take on the traditional phoenix, which represents prosperity and good fortune. A smaller appetiser plate, featuring two smaller birds, sits on top of the charger and completes the set.
TAKING NEW HEIGHTS
“The table is two-dimensional, flat and limits the way food can be presented,” opines Desmond Chang, creative director of French porcelain brand Legle. “So how can we elevate the dishes?” The solution is simple: add height to create a three-dimensional space. It was an idea that the Taiwan-based Chang had pondered for a while. The golden opportunity to explore it presented itself in 2016, during a chance encounter in Seoul with Odette’s chef-owner, Julien Royer. Royer was keen to explore the idea, inspired as he was by the mountain ranges of his hometown in Auvergne, France, and the modern skyline of Singapore. Thus the 39-piece collaborative collection, Espace (French for space), was born. Flat white porcelain plates are raised slightly at the bottom to create a subtle floating illusion on the table, or given raised edges to create depth. And then there are dishes with stockier, elongated bases to draw more emphasis. The edition available for commercial sale sports a blue glaze, but Odette’s version takes note of the restaurant’s interiors with a palette of white, matt bronze, gold and silver.
A whole roasted pigeon, resting on a bed of hay and rosemary in a cast-iron cocotte, makes a great preview to Odette’s signature dish. But it is chef Julien Royer’s thoughtful plating of the three-part main course that gives the bird its deserved attention. Each element of the dish is conferred its own dishware. The medium-rare breast with medjool dates is served on a flat, raised-edge plate, and the liver parfait siphoned into a separate cup. But the highlight of the dish is the pigeon’s confit leg (Royer declares the leg as his favourite part, in a rolled-up note tied to the bird’s foot). The raised dish, featuring a small indent to place the foot, is an exclusive piece made for Odette. Its height invites diners to forgo the fork and knife and enjoy the bird’s leg with their hands.
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
Against the elegant dining room, Jaan’s latest crockery offers a rugged contrast. The butter plate is a coarse-looking “chocolate-bar” (a diner once attempted a bite), and the truffle soup starter is served in a tilted stone-like bowl supported by a small leg. “No spoon is given for this,” says chef Kirk Westaway. “You cup your hands around it and drink it,” he adds, demonstrating helpfully.
Westaway’s first customised crockery collection is an expression of “rustic elegance”, a term he coined. It replaces spotless perfection with a simpler and modest style of plating. A year ago, those pieces existed only as rough sketches. “I’m a terrible artist,” he jokes.
During a trip to Ubud, Bali, he made acquaintance with ceramicists from Gaya Ceramics & Design, which makes custom pieces for hotels and resorts. There, the ceramicists made sketches based on Westaway’s ideas and went through a trial-and-error process that took nearly six months, before he was content. The soup bowl’s legs were too spindly and long initially, so they were shortened and made thicker. The egg bowl for his signature dish was too big to handle and too clean-looking. He had it made smaller so that the waiter could lift the lid easily with one hand. More clay chips were added to create a speckled effect on the bowl’s exterior. There’s more to come in this collection, promises Westaway.
Jaan’s iconic signature dish of 55-degree organic egg has gone through a few iterations, yet faithfully keeps its dramatic entrance of rosemary smoke and eggshells. What better way to represent the modest protein? In the latest version of the dish by chef Kirk Westaway, it is presented in a porcelain bowl that’s the size and shape of an ostrich egg. The bowl is a reference to a cracked egg, with the “shell” lid opening to reveal a billow of rosemary smoke that shrouds the organic egg with celeriac and mushroom. After the theatrical unveiling, the lid doubles as a table piece to admire during the course.
PHOTOGRAPHY Vee Chin
ART DIRECTION Chelza Pok