The author trimming
Go sun sara thrown
Nana sun hira zara, 8 in.
Clockwise from top left:
Pottery is a conversation between friends, between the potter and the clay, between the maker and the user, between the vessel and the meal. It helps us find the common ground between apparently different cultures and teaches us about the beauty of nature and the joy of simply living. It’s all about food, really, though too often we take it for granted. Food, you see, is a basic necessity, whereas cuisine is not. But just eating to survive is not what makes us human; what makes us different from other animals is our passion for flavor, fragrance, texture and color; in short, our joy in the sensual experience of dining. And the art of the potter is to enhance that sensual experience and make even the best of food better.
I sat on the front porch this morning with my wife, as a cool breeze blew across the rice paddies, and enjoyed a cup of coffee with her before breakfast. The fragrance of the coffee as I ground it from fresh beans, different from the aroma as I poured hot water through the grounds in one of my coffee drippers and coffee pot, different again as we drank it through frothed milk in my wood-fired mugs. A dash of vanilla, a sprinkling of cinnamon, the feel of the handle within my grasp and the texture of the rim as it touched my lips. All of this incidental as we enjoyed the morning light over the garden.
On the terraced field in front of our home, beyond the mint and the persimmon trees, is our vegetable garden. No chemicals have been used on this land for thirty years, and the soil is rich and fertile. The potatoes are ready to harvest, and the tomato plants are laden with fruit, as are the cucumbers and aubergine. Surrounding the vegetables are a variety of herbs: basil, fennel, garlic chives, stevia, dill, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Herbs for fragrance, herbs for flavor, herbs for color. In different seasons we have other delicacies to enjoy. Come autumn the pumpkins and carrots will be ripe, the chestnuts and persimmons ready to harvest, the saffron blossoming across the lawn. The autumn harvest will last through the cold months, and winter will see Chinese cabbage and brussels sprouts. Come spring again and the native herbs will burgeon forth, along with asparagus, onions and garlic. Year round there is a feast in the fields, as long as we husband it well. It takes care, toil and understanding to keep these crops throughout the year, rotating the plantings and storing the harvest. But with four small children to raise, surely no endeavor is more worthwhile. Save, perhaps, the serving of this feast?
The children are stirring in the house, so Mika and I go inside and round them up. Faces washed, hair combed, fresh clothes. I baked bread this morning and I add home-made butter and yuzu marmalade from Laura Inoue’s pottery in Nagano, milk from Oki’s dairy farm down the road, and breakfast is served. Here is where the root of the potter’s craft is set, on the top of your own dining table. It is not enough to tear a lump of bread from the loaf, smear it with dollops of butter and marmalade with you bare hands and shove it unceremoniously into your gob (though my three year old may sometimes disagree). The plates must be chosen to hold the bread, the butter must be served in an appropriate vessel, the marmalade deserves a bowl of its own and the milk must be served in cups small enough to fit a growing hand and in volume large enough to fill a growing thirst! Form follows function, as the adage goes, and it is the potter’s craft to enhance the enjoyment of the eating experience by creating vessels that epitomize the essential four Ts: Stability, Durability, Functionality and Beauty.
After breakfast, I go out to the studio (a matter of seconds as it is in the room beside the kitchen), and Mika takes the children outside to harvest today’s crop. For my part, I have orders to fill and exhibitions for which to prepare. However, my first order of the day is dinner plates as part of a dinner setting for a French restaurant in Tokyo. It’s a long story, but if you’ll bear with me…
For the last fifteen years, I have been exhibiting at the Ebiya Bijutsuten Gallery in Nihombashi, Tokyo. It is one of nine businesses that came to Tokyo with the Meiji emperor in 1868 from Kyoto by appointment to the Imperial Household. As a functional potter, I found it offensive that galleries would use plastic cups or paper plates for an opening reception when they were trying to convince the public of the benefits of using handcrafted ceramics, so from the very outset, the owner Miyake san and I decided that we would use only my vessels at the opening. A nearby restaurant, Kappo Toyoda, agreed to provide the food for the opening on my platters, and so a new tradition began.
There is, of course, an intrinsic difference in the perception of a vessel between Japan and the West, in that a vessel in the West is a canvas on which to display your culinary artistry, whereas in Japan, the vessel is an environment in which your cuisine exists, each interdependent on the other. The owner chef at Toyoda, Hashimoto Touru, is a fifth generation Japanese chef and had just returned from being the head chef at the Japanese embassy in Germany when I had my first exhibition at Ebiya. We have since become fast friends and each year we have discussed the design, shape, color and texture of the work in order to bring out the best in the cuisine.
You see, I enjoy cooking, and I like to claim cooking as my hobby. In order to make pots well, one must know how to use them well. But there is a limit. Whether I am a master potter or not may be moot, but I am most certainly not a master chef. To pretend to be so would be naïve at best. No, I am a professional potter, a professional maker of pots, as opposed to a professional chef, who is a professional user of pots. It became blatantly clear that, if I were to ever make functional pots of a truly professional level, I must do so in collaboration with professional chefs. So, in 2004, Touru san agreed to collaborate with me on a signature dinner.
We spent a day at the Tokyo Dome Table Ware Festival (at which I have exhibited for the last few years), discussing vessel sizes, shapes and color in relation to the food, the season and the method of eating. At a restaurant, there is a particularly limited amount of table space on which to serve various meals, and a balance of proportion between the size and presence of a vessel and the food that is served upon it. The shape of a vessel, its size and color must relate to the food, and in Japan, where the vessel is often held in the hand, the size and comfort of the vessel must also be taken into account. In the West, it is important for a dinner plate to be smooth and flat, for a rough surface would make the knife and fork screech and clatter and make cutting unpleasantly difficult. In Japan, however, the food may be cut into bite size morsels by the chef and the diner need only lift them from the surface with their chopsticks, so throwing rings and a more textured surface are perfectly acceptable.
Over a period of months, we discussed what was necessary to create an ideal table setting for a full course Japanese kaiseki ryori meal, and I made a kiln load of prototypes, which were then critiqued. We came to a final decision and I returned to the studio to produce a restaurant’s worth of vessels for a signature dinner. Each evening during my annual exhibition, Touru san and I hosted a full course meal at Kappo Toyoda.
With the chef preparing and serving the food in front of the guests, we were able to explain the process by which the vessels were designed and made for each course and the important points about the functional collaboration. The guests, in turn, being the final user of the vessels, were able to give their feelings and opinions of the work throughout the meal. Each guest was given a limited edition yunomi (teacup) in a signed wooden box to commemorate the evening. Since the inaugural dinner in 2005, it has become an annual event, though we try to change the season each year. It has proven to be an invaluable resource for design development and a testing ground for new work.
But why stop at Japanese? Yes, of course, there is already a predilection in Japanese cuisine for vessels that interact with the food, but surely Western cuisine could benefit from a similar perspective. In 2006, Isaka san of Gallery St. Ives in Tokyo proposed a signature dinner at La butte boisee French restaurant in Jiyugaoka, Tokyo. Once again a long series of discussions about season, menu and function ensued. The result was an amazing fusion of ceramics and cuisine.
Since that time, I have worked with numerous restaurants, bistros and cafés to create ceramics specifically designed for their particular cuisine. You see, it is the food that comes first, not the vessel. Too many potters, even here in Japan, say, “I have made a vessel that is beautiful and complete. Now it is the challenge of the chef to bring out the best in it!” If it is complete, the addition of food will do nothing but detract from it, no matter how skilled a chef may be. I am not that egotistical. A vessel needs to need the food, for a true vessel is not complete until it is in use. A potter must surrender their work into the hands of the user and allow them to complete the conversation. If not, we are talking to ourselves at best, and preaching at worst.
My current order is for a French restaurant and wine bar in Nihombashi, Tokyo, called G’drop. They intend to use only my vessels for the winter menu from December until February. As I write this, it is still August, and time is on my side. I finish the plates by lunchtime. By now the children have harvested the potatoes, the tomatoes, cucumbers and capsicums. I make a salad from the tomatoes, some home-made cottage cheese, basil, olive oil and balsamico. Served on a black glaze, the colors come to life. Pasta with a cream sauce, some parsley for garnish, on a celadon chattered plate.
The children are ecstatic that the food they have harvested should be served to them for lunch. They help with the preparation and the serving. They boast to each other about the part they have played in this grand meal. Mika and I smile and open a bottle of wine. When it comes right down to it, this is why I pot. It is a conversation with the people I love, a collaboration between the beauty of nature and the beauty that I have derived from nature. By this collaboration with nature in the wood fire, my work goes beyond my ability and becomes something new, then becomes a part of our life on the dining table. Pottery is about food, it is about love and life and the joy of simply living. And it’s still only lunchtime!
the author Euan Craig is an Australian-born potter living and working in Mashiko, Japan. Check out his blog at http://euancraig.blogspot.com.