In the restaurant industry, it seems, the devil does not, in fact, wear Prada. Caviar, perhaps, or locally grown, specially harvested heirloom tomatoes in that bisque, but also the spoon your guest is using to slurp said bisque. Yes in the restaurant industry, the devil is in the seemingly infinite but nowhere near insignificant details.
When I started diving into tableware trends for the 2019 Buyer’s Guide, my mind went to one place and one place only: handmade ceramics. I am a millennial, lest you ever forget. That was until I spoke with Paul Gebhardt, vice president of design and creative director for Oneida, and he totally called me and other millennials out on our ceramics obsession. (In doing so, very kindly, he alerted me to the fact that my thinking handmade ceramics would dominate the 2019 Buyer’s Guide was also very me-me-me millennial of me.)
Talking to Paul was—in keeping with the fashion metaphor—like sitting down with Michael Kors or Tim Gunn, except we didn’t talk about the clothes we wear every day, we talked about what your restaurant wears every day. For a girl who grew up working retail, coveting clothing, and going on to develop an obsession with housewares (unsurprisingly, particularly kitchen items), it was a dream. And it was also an education.
Handmade ceramics, it turns out, are not for everyone. The level of distaste I feel for white china may simply be a reflection of my identification with a generation that prefers local textures of all kinds, and as an extension of that, artisan pottery.
What I found most astounding, however, was just how much importance Paul put on flatware. And I had never really thought much about it. As a kid, my family would pile in the car and drive from our beach house in Ocean City, Maryland, to an outlet mall much closer to the non-seasonal everyday world of civilization. It took a minimum of two hours. What for? So my dad could purchase a replacement spoon or knife for our flatware set from Oneida. I never understood this, but I always remembered the name. I’m not sure I appreciated flatware at all until I became a food stylist and my producers had me keen on picking up any piece of vintage flatware I could find. It turns out, all along I’d been jewelry shopping, for the most intimate of culinary adornment pieces.
“Flatware has that hold in your hand, touch to your lips intimacy that the plate really doesn’t have,” Paul told me when we chatted for my article in the Buyer’s Guide. “The plate is more sensed than seen sometimes, but the flatware is tactile. You hold it and it can really make the food taste better, make it feel like it’s worth more money.”
What is a little black dress without an appropriate necklace and earrings to match? They’re the accent that takes you from having spent a hundred bucks to looking like a million. Flatware, like jewelry, is personal—it says something about the chef, and the tabletop says something about the brand.
“After a guest is seated at your table, that view is a pretty primary view—you’ve really got an opportunity to articulate what is meaningful to the brand,” Paul said. “Those things all make a big difference, along with the food of course, to the guest.”