tasmanian conversations: ridgeline pottery / sidecar

Friday 21 September 2012

Perched on a hill overlooking Pipeclay Lagoon and Frederick Henry Bay, is the home of Ben Richardson and his wife Peta. Better known as Ridgeline Pottery, this is the home and studio of one of Australia’s best potters.

Ben and Peta are passionate about this place called Tasmania and their work displays an intrinsic link to our island. Ben is a rare breed of potter that digs his own clays and gathers natural materials to produce an array of coloured glazes. He is regarded as a master of the wood fired kiln and has developed a deep understanding of this firing technique. It is this combination of skills and technique that makes him unique. But this isn’t only about Ben, it is also a story about a little bar called sidecar.

Sidecar is located on the Northern fringe of the Hobart City Centre. Envisaged as a complement to its big brother Garagistes, it occupies an impossibly small space that had lain vacant for many years. The new space is intimate, warm, beautifully illuminated, and exquisitely detailed. It is without doubt the best small venue in Tasmania. As with Garagistes a strong emphasis is placed on exceptional food, wine and attention to detail.

When stepping into Sidecar you are confronted with an enormous communal table, which presents as an island within the space. It is upon its steel clad surface that activity revolves. Wine is poured, food is prepared, plated and both are rapidly devoured. The preparation and plating of food is like a ritual undertaken by skilled artisans. Whilst engaged in conversation you find your eyes wandering to watch the performance.

So what is the link between Sidecar and Ridgeline Pottery? The link is the surface upon which the food is presented, an exquisite range of custom stoneware developed by Ben and Peta in collaboration with co-owners Kirk Richardson, Luke Burgess and Katrina Birchmeier.

We recently met at Sidecar with Ben, Peta, and Kirk, to discuss food, the venue and pottery.

The food philosophy for Garagistes and subsequently Sidecar started out with an ethos of sourcing all food locally. As the business has expanded local produce has remained an important focus, along with a diverse and exciting menu. This sourcing of food is a time consuming passion, but one that is fundamental to producing a high quality product. With such an investment of energy, you can understand the desire would exist to present the fruits of this labour on the best possible surface. Employing a potter allowed the realisation of this desire, developing a product that would best complement the food offering. “Our menu consists largely of local produce that is taken from its natural state, and made into a good looking food product…..a handmade plate made of local materials made sense” Kirk explained.

Ben recounts prior to the opening of Garagistes, being approached by executive chef Luke Burgess about the possibility of providing custom tableware. “Luke had a firm idea on a colour range, level of shine, and the shape of the plates, which were to be circular”. Ben laughed as he relived his initial response, which was one of apprehension. He had never produced a glaze within the desired colourway, the timeframe was very short, and it would likely require an electric kiln. Of interest he expressed some reservations with the colours suggested, but chose to trust Luke’s better judgement. To satisfy his own curiosity, and to represent his translation of Luke’s brief, Ben developed a range of sample glazes. The depth of colour in the selected glaze is simply stunning.

The timeframe dictated that the initial product range was small, however as the popularity of Garagistes increased so did the range of stoneware. The subsequent opening of Sidecar has seen yet another incarnation of this beautiful range. Consisting of both plates and bowls, the range is earthy in colour, and substantial. They are not like fine china, they have mass. They are obviously handmade, displaying slight variations in shape and colour, which exude character and patina. Admiring a stack of walled bowls, I remarked to Ben that they were not all perfect, he corrected me by saying that ‘they were not all identical!’ This is an important distinction, for he believes that rather than achieving a clinical consistency, he strives for a controlled inconsistency which intensifies the handmade. Despite their substantial nature, they compliment the food rather than detract. They display a tonal variation in colour allowing different foods to be plated. This was achieved by developing a base coloured glaze, using locally sourced materials, which has the colour strength reduced to create the variation. The stoneware at Sidecar is similar to that of Garagistes, albeit smaller. Circular plates and bowls allow food to be plated that requires containment, as well as food that freely drapes over its edges. Strip plates allow a contrasting style of food presentation. All shapes are seductive with the form harmonising seamlessly with the style of food offered.

The surface of each object has a mottled and almost pitted appearance. This variation is a natural characteristic of the glaze developed for these works and result from the electric kiln process. Firing in an electric kiln creates a far different result than Ben’s favoured wood firing process. The colour saturation and consistency of finish is far more even. They are certainly a point of difference, and their inclusion enriches and intensifies the experience.

Near the end of our time at Sidecar, Ben concluded by saying he believed that “the subsequent popularity of this work is a result of the creativity in which the food is plated.” This harks back to his belief that pottery items should be ‘simply made, beautiful and totally useful’. He has a strong dislike for pottery presented purely for the purpose of ornamentation. Both Ben and Peta spoke openly of the belief that beautifully designed objects have a profound impact when utilised during times of pause and reflection, such as the dinnerware we use when sharing a meal. Seeing the stoneware used in the manner for which it was intended, enjoyed by a wide cross section of people, must be a deeply satisfying experience for both of them. Whilst I agree that the composition of plate and food was harmonious, it would be doing a disservice to the pottery to say it relies on the food. Yes they look best when filled with food, but they also look pretty good empty. The stoneware is in its own right a beautiful collection of objects. When located within arms reach, you want to touch them, pick them up. Kirk remarked that people who eat at the restaurant regularly turn the plates and bowls upside down to establish the identity of the maker. I myself ( Dean ) am guilty of this!

As we wrapped up our meeting, service was beginning. It seemed only appropriate to order a selection of food, and enjoy a glass of wine.

We must thank Ben, Peta, and Kirk for their generosity in providing us with this glimpse into their world.

This post is a collaboration between Architect Dean Baird, Interior Designer Karryn Dargie and Photographer Jonathan Wherrett. 


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