The resurgence of craft tableware
Paul Bailey visits Aylesford Pottery to find out about how commissioning tableware works
The interest in all things handmade is creating new partnerships between high-end restaurants and potteries making ranges of bespoke, handmade tableware for the international market. The two master potters at Aylesford Potter in Kent share their experiences of working with this highly-charged industry.
Alan Parris, co-partner, said: “We noticed a change in the craft movement some time ago, when the media started covering lifestyle features using images of ceramics by modern makers. This was reinforced by the rise of celebrity chefs on television and in magazines. They too were using handmade tableware as props for their work.”
This, in a way, presents today’s craft studio makers with a problem. Many small potteries have gone through retirements or economic pressures, leaving a void. Large commissions for national chain restaurants can source their needs from large factories or by going abroad. So where does this leave small, independent restaurants looking for something different? In Kent, only Aylesford Pottery is able to handle such large-scale, commercial commissions.
Billy Byles, the other copartner at Aylesford, said: “One day, the chef and owner of the independent West House Restaurant, Graham Garret, visited us. What he wanted was something unique, to complement his dining rooms. He had pictures of what he liked and after browsing the gallery here, pointed out the glazes he wanted. The next step was to produce samples for him. Some shapes we did on the spot, which amazed him.”
The West House, opened by Graham and Jackie Garrett in 2002, is a small family-run restaurant, with a reputation for fantastic food, earned through Graham’s focus on excellent delivery of the finest ingredients. The restaurant gained a Michelin star after its first year, and has held it ever since.
The small dining room, in a 16th-century weaver’s cottage on Biddenden High Street, is a lovely and characterful place to relax and enjoy the food. Graham has worked for both Nico Ladenis and Richard Corrigan, and has been the head chef of multiple restaurants. Included in his achievements has been cooking for government and royalty, having been fortunate enough to cook at both 10 Downing Street, and also to cater a private dinner for the Queen.
Graham said: “Our reputation has afforded us many media opportunities, including among them the prestigious television show Great British Menu and Ramsay’s Best Restaurant. What we wanted next was a range of tableware unique to us, and something that reflected our love of Kent and traditional craft makers. I heard about Aylesford Pottery and decided to pay them a visit. The rest is history, as they say.”
This commission led to other contacts; chefs are a very close-knit community. In the case of the West House Restaurant, it led to being included in their book, Sex, Drugs & Sausage Rolls. It has also led to being represented by the restaurant wholesaler Continental Chiefs. If anyone is thinking of entering this sector, Alan Parris had some advice. He said, “The two most important things to remember are planning the commission, and having the skills to carry the work out to a high level of competence. It’s very often quicker to throw the pieces on a wheel rather than making moulds. But you need to be able to production-throw to a level of 50-60 items per hour.”
Also, in the planning stage, consideration for when the work is wanted is critical, especially if it’s for an opening. Then, talk through the processes involved and the time frame with the client. Importantly, agree on the design and produce samples with glazes. Often the client wants something unique, or they wouldn’t be commissioning you.
Ensure that the design includes any health and safety requirements and can be used in commercial dishwashers. An obvious thing is having the studio space and racks to be able to store all the items while drying and glazing. At Aylesford, they have a number of kilns but use a 15ft3 electric kiln and a 55ft3 gas kiln for large-scale works. Alan described their big breakthrough. “One of the largest restaurant suppliers in the country decided to pay us a visit. They have a showroom in central London and a very beautiful catalogue. Always looking for something new, they were keen to meet the demand for one-off designs that chefs are looking for. And importantly, are suppliers able to deliver quickly on follow-up orders? A typical order would be for about 200 items for each of the pieces.”
Another recent commission was for the opening this August in Leeds city centre for HOME, which is a dining concept from chefs Mark Owens and Elizabeth Cottam. They believe there’s more to dining out than just great food. HOME offers a genuine, warm welcome, and a relaxed environment. The dishes are distinctive, yet deliberately familiar. The aim is to redefine classic British flavours and serve them to guests by way of carefully curated, tasting menus.
Mark began his professional career in the two-Michelin-starred Le Gavroche. He went on to work at the one-starred restaurant The Star, at Harome, as sous chef and most recently ran the kitchen as head chef at the one-starred The Box Tree.
After her appearance on MasterChef (2016), Elizabeth completed a very successful residency at The New Ellington Hotel in Leeds, before joining Mark. Mark commented: “It was a tight deadline for Alan and Billy, but we knew we had to make an impact, and have the style of something made by hand, by people who care.”
Alan is a keen user of social media. After posting some of the work on Twitter, he suddenly found he was being followed by many of the leading chefs. Some of these later led to commissions. He commented, “The chefs see the work as a joint venture between both parties, and will often decide on quite radical shapes and use muted glazes, so the food colours aren’t drowned. Mostly, it’s stoneware due to its longevity in a busy kitchen environment. White porcelain is not an option.”
Both Alan and Billy are very clear about the section of the market they are working in. Orders involving thousands of pieces for chain restaurants would be better-served by the large factories. Although they make moulds for other commissions, they find it quicker to throw pieces, which is the strength of craft studio potters today and in the past.
This feature first appeared in issue 9
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