This article was also published in the Financial Times.
On today's restaurant tables, the flat rimmed, round plate is seen as positively old-fashioned, confined to either the very inexpensive or very expensive ends of the market. 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 I was to learn 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 designated to pour soup or a sauce from a seemingly specified height into a carefully co-ordinated bowl.
Last week I took a train to Stoke-on-Trent, the historic centre of English china production in the heart of the Midlands consequently known as the Potteries, to visit Churchill China, which, with sales of over £20 million to the British hospitality industry, is the leading supplier of top quality china to restaurants.
The four hours I subsequently 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 of this company that can trace its development back to 1796 is a branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken with its determined reliance on disposable paper plates.
And 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.
This sense of incongruity 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 charged with not only keeping the chefs happy but also keeping ahead of the competition which locally 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. "What we are told initially is that 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 then 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%."
What Kelley has also come to realise is that as chefs remodel the food they serve so 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 added enthusiastically.
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 & 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 whose quality is still considered the most consistent in the world as it did when it arrived by canal 200 years ago, and 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 back to when china production began here in the late 18th century in peoples' houses.
And as I was carefully led round past the biscuit kiln which heats the china to 1300 degrees C and then the glossed kiln which finishes off the glazed china to a mere 1100 degrees 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 British business.
I was initially shown two enormous units through which eight men could produce 13,000 dozen round plates a week but these, thanks to falling demand and cheap imports, are increasingly idle. Instead, the main activity on the factory floor is undertaken by men and women in blue overalls moulding, drying and handling the increasingly more popular and expensive plates of every other 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 today's essential square plates.
Back in the showroom the Managing Director Andrew Roper showed me some of their more long lasting chinaware: a cup and saucer that has 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 unlikely that any new designs will last as long as these but this can only be good news for Churchill's workforce.