Top chefs worldwide have routinely challenged the concept of traditional dishware, plating food on sunflowers, stones and bird’s nests. But historically, dishware as we think of it most commonly has served an essential purpose, elevating food from its state as functional ephemera to that of deeply-considered art.
In her work as a ceramicist, Cara Janelle has contributed a verse to the ongoing evolution of food culture. Her ceramics are featured at three-MICHELIN-starred restaurants Atelier Crenn in San Francisco and Alinea in Chicago; as well as two-starred Ocean in Alporchinhos, Portugal, and Steirereck im Stadtpark in Vienna; and one-starred Enigma and Pakta in Barcelona, Aldea in New York City and Sens at Hotel Vitznauerhof in Vitznau, Switzerland.
An American artist living in Barcelona, Janelle’s journey into ceramics began six years ago when she traveled to Spain for three months and encountered the craft unexpectedly. “I proposed to do an internship at the studio I found so I could clean the floors to pay for more classes,” she says. “It wasn’t a plan or a goal or even a thought at the time to start a business.” Soon after, she “couldn’t stop making things.” She would give ceramics away to people, and send them home to family and friends in suitcases. One weekend, she sold a few at a market and her business began.
A browse through Janelle’s Instagram shows her journey and dedication: cloudy cerulean bowls captioned “first glaze tests in the new space,” dozens of plates stacked high, even travel shots of the Dead Sea reference back to her work (“textures from the lowest place on earth”). Many of her photos tag the chefs and restaurants with whom she collaborates on her collections.
“Earlier this year, Pakta reopened and Albert Adrià came by the studio to select the new tableware for the new menu,” Janelle says. “Some of the designs we drew out together, others were selected from my current collection. He was very specific about the form of the pieces, but he left me with a color palette and let me decide most of the glazes.”
Chefs differ in their way of working with Janelle and the plates that accompany their food. “I’ve have requests to design custom prototypes with the restaurant name drawn or etched into the plate, and I’ve had chefs visit my studio and start buying all of the stock and samples I have tucked away in old wine crates,” Janelle says. “I’ve also had to turn down a couple of orders, when the chef becomes the designer and forgets that I have made mountains of mistakes to come to the conclusion that some clays and glazes just don’t pair well together.”
Janelle often works with chefs on unexpected timeframes. “Last summer Grant Achatz and Simon Davies were in Barcelona for a few days and they came by my studio for a tour,” she says. “We had arranged the visit so I had every imaginable piece and color and sample test displayed on any horizontal surface I could find. I hid some of the tests that were maybe a little more difficult to make for a large scale production. They found them, and they ordered them.”
Chef Davies is integrally engaged with Janelle’s process. “Last year, we began a collaboration with her for a dish that was centered around using palo santo as a flavor and pulling from other ingredients found in Central America,” he says. “She made raku plates, using many of the same components found in the food to burn designs onto the ceramics. She created matching copitas and carafes that we place on a burning palo santo log as an accompaniment to the course.”
Part of Janelle’s success has been her ability to act quickly when needed. “I [once] got a call from Enigma,” she says, “they wanted to know if I could make them a custom vessel based on something they have in the restaurant.” She agreed and asked them if they could bring the prototype to her studio so she could have an accurate idea of the dimensions and proportions. “They showed up with this piece that looked like an ancient Peruvian artifact and said they needed it for dinner service [and would] come back before 5 p.m. to pick it up,” she says. “I laughed a little and then scrambled to make the fastest prototype ever.”
The restaurants Janelle works with are, in some senses, her galleries. “Ocean has the biggest collection of my work anywhere in the world,” she says. “Every time Hans Neuner orders from me, the quantities are double the last order. The first time he placed an order he selected the designs all from photos on my Instagram [account]. In January, he came to Barcelona for the first time and selected an entirely new collection for this year’s menu. If he doubles the order again I think I’m just going to bring a kiln to Portugal and make the next order there.”
Spontaneity has proven critical to Janelle’s output as an artist. “My favorite ritual at the end of a big order is to use the last bit of clay that is left over to make a random experiment, with no expectations,” she says. “It is how I come up with many of my new designs. Instead of designing something for a particular use or with a specific dimension, I just make something for myself, my hands deciding.”
Janelle is currently partnering with chefs in London and Barcelona on a pop-up dinner series, and is actively seeking partners for collaboration. Her ceramics will be featured at the much-anticipated Pernoi outside of Detroit slated to open in August.
Photos courtesy of Cara Janelle.