On today’s restaurant tables, the flat-rimmed round plate is seen as positively old-fashioned. Instead, our food is increasingly presented in a veritable artillery of square plates, rectangles, ovals, tear-shaped dishes, bowls of all sizes and pieces of increasingly heavy china that may not actually serve the purpose the chef, or even the designer, originally had in mind. Not to mention all those jugs, many without handles, from which waiters are now required to pour soup or sauce.
Last week I took a train to Stoke-on-Trent, the historic centre of English china production in the heart of the Midlands, also known as the Potteries, to visit Churchill China. The company, with sales of more than £20m to the British hospitality industry, is the leading supplier of top quality china to restaurants.
The four hours I spent in the showrooms and factory (still known locally as a “pot bank”) were not only illuminating but also incongruous. The most conspicuous sight from the reception area of this company, which can trace its history to 1796, is a Kentucky Fried Chicken with its determined reliance on disposable paper plates.
Over lunch in the showroom, I was strongly aware that the most expensive ingredients on the table by far were the ultra-fashionable, white rectangular plates from Churchill’s particularly successful Alchemy range on which the sandwiches and cut-up sausage rolls were served. The theme continued as I sat opposite Julia Kelley who, with degrees in ceramics and industrial design, is design and product manager for Churchill’s hospitality division, in charge of not only keeping the chefs happy but also keeping ahead of the competition. This includes Doulton, Steelite and Wedgwood and, most conspicuously in the restaurant market worldwide, Germany’s Villeroy & Boch.
Kelley and her colleagues obviously spend a lot of time listening to chefs but the messages they hear are far from crystal clear. “Initially, what chefs want is a canvas on which they can display their dishes. So you would have thought that the simpler would have been the most effective. But chefs have also come to realise that the more unusual or extravagant the shape the food is served on, the stronger the impression it will create. We recently replaced all the china in the restaurant at Keele University and although neither the dishes nor the prices changed at all, sales went up 10 per cent.”
Kelley has also come to realise that as chefs remodel the food they serve, she has to adapt her designs. “There is now no point in creating too extensive a range as I can no longer be really sure what my china is going to be used for. I designed a sugar bowl for one particular range that has been very popular because one chef decided to use it to serve desserts in, while the cereal bowl that was created for the Alchemy range was suddenly in huge demand because it was the right size for an individual portion of vegetables. The deep square bowls that we designed as part of our fusion range a couple of years ago have been bought by Italian chefs and I have seen our tear-drop dishes used for shared salads, main courses and desserts,” she said.
Kelley had come into our meeting not just with even more samples of china but also “mood boards” that had helped her design process. “The design of china for retail obviously has an impact on what we do but the great comfort of designing for chefs is that they want longevity of design. They are investing very heavily when they open a restaurant and they don’t want to be forced to have to change all their stock half-way through. And their input into what we eventually manufacture is vital. One of the biggest sources of inspiration for a new range here came from the art deco exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. But the initial prototypes we came up with only materialised into successful designs after we had made numerous changes from talking to chefs. There were four changes just on the tea pot. The spout had to be widened so a brush could go through it. The handle is now cast on so that it stays cool and the lid has a steam hole and a lock on it so that it does not fall off when the waiter is pouring it.”
One other big impact chefs have had on design has been their preference for plain white. “Five years ago there were far more patterns in our range but then chefs began appearing regularly on TV and presenting their food on white plates so we had to adapt what we were designing. But I think this is changing. Fashion and haute couture have added much more colour over the past two years and there are now patterns on the sides of several of our newer ranges.” Kelley’s design hopes rest on a metallic range incorporating gold and bronze for the spring.
I witnessed yet more incongruity as I walked from a showroom full of the most recent china designs into a factory whose underlying principles have barely changed. The slip clay, china’s raw material, still comes from Devon and Cornwall in south-west England. Its quality is still considered the most consistent in the world – as it was when it arrived by canal 200 years ago. The initial transformation of this into 6ft tubes of clay still takes place in what is referred to locally as a “slip house”, a term that dates from when china production began here in the late 18th century in people’s houses.
And as I was led round the biscuit kiln that heats the china to 1,300°C, and then the glossed kiln, which finishes off the glazed china to a mere 1,100°C, I became increasingly aware of just what an impact the growth of the hospitality industry and changing design and fashion are having on this historic business.
I was shown two enormous units through which eight men could produce 156,000 round plates a week but, due to falling demand and cheap imports, these are increasingly idle. Instead, the main activity on the factory floor is moulding, drying and handling the increasingly more popular and expensive plates of every shape and size. Side by side, Mohammed Pinno and Paul Singh were taking rectangles of clay and moulding them to produce large rectangular dishes that would, when finished, hold sushi or several petits fours. Not far away was an obviously strong husband-and-wife team whose working day involved passing to one another the 20kg moulds that hold square plates.
Back in the showroom, the managing director Andrew Roper showed me some of their more long-lasting china ware: a cup and saucer that have been in production for 50 years; a range they have made for the NHS for 25 years; and one design that anyone who has eaten in an Indian restaurant in the past couple of decades would instantly recognise. It is possible that the new designs will not last as long as these but this can only be good news for the workforce.
More columns at www.ft.com/lander