Pimp my plates: the potter behind Le Gavroche’s beautiful tableware

Pimp my plates: the potter behind Le Gavroche’s beautiful tableware

by Hugh Thomas 24 April 2017

Hugh Thomas pays a visit to North Street Potters, a small Clapham-based pottery that creates the plates and bowls seen in some of the UK’s top restaurants.

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Hugh is a freelance food journalist and professional glutton. Previously, he has written for The Guardian, Time Out, Restaurant magazine, British Street Food, and inapub.

Hugh is a freelance food journalist and professional glutton. Previously, he has written for The Guardian, Time Out, Restaurant magazine, British Street Food, and inapub.

‘Oh, we never use that word! Go and wash your mouth out.’ I’m talking to Naine Woodrow, of North Street Potters in Clapham, and I’ve just learned something new – never use the word ‘crockery’ in the presence of one of the country’s most skilled potters. Why it’s so blasphemous a term I can only guess (I didn’t fancy pressing the issue). Perhaps it conjures images of the most basic, utilitarian, and industrially-made ceramics, commonly found in your local high street kitchenware chain?

If that’s the case, then lock me up – Naine’s a veteran craftswoman. ‘I’ve been doing this for nearly forty years,’ she says, ‘so I’m an old hand.’ Having originally trained in pottery in Japan, Naine returned to the UK after five years to continue her craft. Since then, and after setting up North Street Potters, she’s attracted clients from around London, the UK, and once or twice from other parts of the world.

All for good reason – the glazes on Naine’s bowls, plates, teapots, saucers and other pieces are alluring deep sea blues, mint yoghurt greens and squid ink blacks. The designs are simple, yet elegant – if you wanted to go home with pottery that made a statement on your kitchen wall, you wouldn’t have any trouble finding a piece or two here. However, when it comes to nice tableware that’s going to show off nice food, you’ll typically go for one of the shop’s subtler options.

Pale blues seem to be a favourite with the majority of professional chefs of the UK
Naine can make 100 bowls in just a few hours – a skill she believes is key to her success

Increasingly, small batch pottery is something people are buying into. ‘We’ve never been this busy,’ says Naine. ‘I’ve just trained up four other people here, to do what I do. We’re all working round the clock practically. The reason being is that ‘handmade’ comes into fashion every decade. ‘Handmade in Britain’ – because of Brexit – is very fashionable at the minute.’

The shop gets two kinds of visitors. Most of them are the general public; often regulars, they go for what Naine calls ‘statement pots’ – highly coloured items that’d presumably sit on a bookshelf in your living room, or make a pleasant gift for your mum. ‘The chef is the other kind of species,’ says Naine. ‘And they buy exactly the opposite. Something that’s pale blue, pale grey, or off-white. Any chef under the age of thirty will buy that colour. A chef who’s forty-plus is much more confident, and is prepared to buy and use more colourful wares, for example Michel Roux Jr. He’ll be quite happy with a plate that’s a mixture of brown and blue. Simon Rogan’s cover plates are dark black with a very rich green third on one side, which is quite unusual. But terrific for me to make.’

Robin Gill also happens to be on the list of North Street Potter’s high-profile clients, but don’t think the British chefs doing British food are the only ones interested – Naine also does work for the more exotically inclined establishments. ‘Coya, who do ceviche and guacamole, have very colourful tableware. It just goes with who they are, being a rather exuberant group of people,’ she says. Meanwhile, given Naine’s training in Japan, Bone Daddies’ Ross Shonhan has in the past put in orders for bespoke donburi bowls.

When a chef approaches Naine, they might find themselves having a conversation similar to one they’d have with a farmer or producer. That’s because Naine doesn’t let chefs book what they want over the phone – first, they must visit her shop, much like the way a good beef farmer will insist a chef comes to see his cattle. Chefs also have to remember this little pottery is no industrial factory – something Simon Rogan once realised first-hand. ‘Simon came in and he wanted to order 200 plates,’ says Naine. ‘I said no because I can’t keep 200 in my head. Do eighty and see how they go, and you can order again later. I don’t use pen and paper – I design everything in my head. But [the chefs] get that I’m a craftsperson, as they are, and we respect each other quite quickly.’

Every piece of pottery is handmade from start to finish
Simon Rogan
Simon Rogan is one of the few chefs that dare to go for something a little bolder, such as this black and green plate

Thing is, you almost can’t blame chefs for trying. Not when you appreciate that, in spite of the shop’s size, one of the things that makes Naine one of the go-to potters in the country is the pace at which she works. ‘The reason I make a living out of this is because I’m really, really fast,’ she says. ‘I can make 100 bowls, all pretty much the same, before morning tea.’

Still, it’s perhaps not quite enough to fulfil the demands of restaurants even more popular than the ones we’ve been talking about. ‘We’ve been making for Obelix in The Shard,’ says Naine. ‘They have 3,500 covers a week. A week! They’re really lovely, but they need other potters. We’re not that big.’ Nor, perhaps, should they want to be. ‘We want to do what we do as well as we can,’ says Naine. ‘But we don’t want to do more than that.’

Much like the role of a chef, creativity is an important part of Naine’s job. But, also like the role of a chef, it has its limits. If a chef has an appointment with the potters, or someone walks into the shop, more often than not what they go home with will be something in pale blue. Or green. ‘They buy armfuls of it,’ says Naine. Sure, it’s a safe choice, but perhaps it betrays a reluctance in expression. Funny, when cooking is such a large statement of oneself.

So, metaphorical life lesson or advice for when heading into a pottery shop, maybe we should all heed Naine’s words: ‘It would be nice if people went for something other than pale blue,’ she laughs. ‘I’d like chefs to be braver and use pottery with more colour. For the ones that do, it looks fantastic.’