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Dishing on dishes: How restaurateurs use table settings to tell stories

Alexandra’s Chef Christopher Vocci serves this white lasagna dish in a cast iron crock, the way his grandmother used to cook.
Alexandra’s Chef Christopher Vocci serves this white lasagna dish in a cast iron crock, the way his grandmother used to cook. (Ed Sincavage)

The very best meals are about more than what’s on the plate. They’re about the setting, the people and even the plates themselves.

This is nothing new. For centuries, what we’ve used to eat has had myriad implications. From practical to cultural to simply aesthetic, what we set on the table and use to serve food matters. Howard County restaurateurs know this, and they embrace it.
Earlier this year, the team at Alexandra’s American Fusion at Turf Valley purchased new dishes for the restaurant, opting for plates that are lightweight and modern. But that doesn’t mean that Alexandra’s chef, Christopher Vocci, goes for a strictly contemporary look with his food.
Instead, Vocci uses the new plates as a jumping off point. Some dishes are served on the new, modern plates, while others, like apple pie and cottage pie, are served in small cast iron crocks and pans. “It’s an interesting melding of an older look with shiny and new,” he says.
Using contrasting dish styles looks great, says Vocci, but the power of the dishware goes beyond surface looks; for Vocci, using cast iron helps him connect the food he serves to his Southern roots.
“When I grew up, my grandmother cooked everything in cast iron,” he recalls, saying that he uses her pots and pans in his home kitchen today. “I believe food should be evocative of memory.”
At Petit Louis Bistro in Columbia, Chef James Lewandowski also uses cast iron pans to help diners more fully appreciate what they are about to eat. Lewandowski roasts whole chickens in Staub pans; the birds are then served in the pan and carved tableside. “It’s so pretty,” he says. “And it gives a connection from the kitchen to the dining room.”
Similarly, the restaurant uses cocottes, cast iron pans with lids, for cassoulets. “We leave the lid on,” he says. “Part of the presentation is that you open it in front of the guest and they get a burst of aroma. They get an idea of what I’ve experienced while cooking.”
Some serving items bridge the gap between practical and cultural. Petit Louis’ escargots dishes, tongs and seafood forks fill a practical need — the small indentations in the dish are just the right size to coddle snail shells and their garlicky sauce, and the tongs and tiny forks allow diners to extract the meat from the shells without making a mess. But looking at those items through the lens of history, they also tell a story.
“Things like tongs for snails or other unusual utensils — we’re looking at the evolution when peasants became a merchant class,” explains Cathy Hansen of the International School of Protocol, a Towson-based etiquette school that frequently teaches classes in Howard County.
Historically, in Western cultures, utensils were used primarily by royalty, she says, and they would be passed down from parents to daughters. “Then, we had an emerging merchant class. All of a sudden, the peasants had status and wanted to acquire utensils. Silversmiths go crazy, and the merchant class buys utensils to show they now have status.”
That cycle resulted in the creation of hundreds of types of utensils and dishes with very narrow uses, says Hansen, from ice cream forks to marrow spoons.
Many of the most esoteric dishes and utensils have mostly fallen out of mainstream restaurant use — and that extends beyond just ice cream forks. These days, it’s more likely to spot an oyster plate gracing the wall of a dining room than a table where oysters are being served. Likewise, the adorable crab shell-shaped imperial dishes that were popular during the 20th century have largely become collectors’ items.
Some dishes, just by virtue of their aesthetics, tell a story.
When PJ Strain was a boy, his parents had a huge cherry tree in the front yard. About 10 years ago, the tree died, so his parents cut it down and stored the wood in their barn. Today, the wood from the tree has a second life as charcuterie and cheese plates at Pure Wine Café, the Ellicott City restaurant and wine bar owned by Strain.
The plates, which were created by local furniture maker 220 Grit, give Strain an opportunity to share part of his personal history with diners. “For me, this is really cool because this tree was at my parents’ house,” says Strain. “I used to watch robins fight over the cherries. I can relate that to guests, and it adds an emotional element.”
That emotional piece, Strain says, has a big impact on the dining experience.
“Being able to tell a story adds something,” he says. “Taste is not a static thing, it’s a fluid thing. Half our taste is olfactory, which is closer to memory than anything else. So taste can change based on what you’re doing, who you’re with.”
And it can change, he has realized, based even on the way your table is set. 

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