Top chefs ordering hand-crafted plates to set off their dishes to perfection. Architect Roisin Murphy meets the potter behind the platters.
In case you hadn’t noticed, those big white platters that fancy restaurants have used for the last decade have begun to disappear. It’s not enough now to source your ingredients from an organic plot, grow your own pigs, or forage your herbs and berries. The latest wave of chefs is commissioning signature plates to match their unique dishes. This food revolution has given birth to a renaissance in ceramics.
When Áimsir, the Michelin-starred restaurant at the Lyons estate, were sourcing plates, they scoured the country looking for an Irish potter to collaborate with. They came across Fermoyle Pottery, the distinctive and experimental plates and ceramics crafted by husband and wife team, Stephen and Alexis O’Connell.
The timing was perfect. Stephen had had enough of making plates tailored to the tourist market.
“Ireland was full of blue pottery, nobody wanted brown,” he tells me. But he had had his fill.
Natural clay pottery went out of fashion after the 1970s, says Stephen, which meant artisan clay makers had focused on blue or decorative finishes to cover up the brown.
Himself and Alexis had been experimenting with glazes and finishes in all sorts of shades. But it's hard to “bite the hand that feeds you”, explains Stephen. Blue and decorative ceramics kept the money coming in the studio doors.
Stephen had worked in ceramics on and off since age 16 when a summer job introduced him to Belfast potter Bob Hollist and his English wife Hulda Dee, ‘real hippies’ who had settle in Kerry. Bob would tell the trainee potter Stephen, “Make it in any colour you like, but all the bastards like is blue”.
After a stint at art college, Stephen formally apprenticed to their studios, though he took a 10-year break to run Clo, the print studio at Cill Rialaig, the Kerry arts centre run by doyenne Noelle Campbell-Sharpe. “Culturally, the best thing that ever happened to south east Kerry ever”, says Stephen.
Those years certainly weren't wasted. He met his wife Alexis, a fine art photographer, by chance when she was on her way home to Australia. It was ‘love at first sight’, he says.
Then luck stepped into his life again. Bob and Hulda decided to retire to France, taking just what they needed for work, and left him materials and much of their equipment to set up his own studio. Fermoyle Pottery was born.
The folks at Aimsir, like myself, must have encountered the pottery from Alexis’s beautiful photographs of the plates and knew they had found something special. The collaboration took six months of work, but along the way it changed the nature of Fermoyle Pottery. It allowed Stephen and Alexis the financial space to focus on creating the plates they had always wanted to make.
Their plates are designed to complement the food, whether it’s a deep dish that allows for dipping sauces, or a ridged clay platter made for chopsticks and sushi. Textured and coloured by ash and wood firings, with glazes and slips made from turf and other experiments, the plates are works of art. One looks exactly like marshmallows covered in soft icing sugar, a meal in itself.
Since then Stephen has made plates for Michelin-starred restaurant Aniar in Galway, Ichigo Ichie in Cork, Domini Kemp for The Commons at Moli, and Ox Restaurant in Belfast. Plate up.