Tableware designer Desmond Chang on the art of plating
20 Apr 2020
It’s not in every interview that your subject tells you – and casually, at that – that they were once ‘medically dead’. But for Desmond Chang, an aortic rupture in 2011 signalled an opportunity for new beginnings.
“I had a 15 percent survival chance,” Chang says, as effortlessly as he would have told me what he’d had for breakfast. “They brought me back, and from then on everything changed in my life. So I said ‘Okay, I’ll only do things that I like, forget about the rest’. I was gone, I came back, and now I want to put everything I know into something I’m passionate about.”
As the founder, CEO and creative force behind Hong Kong-headquartered tableware maker and distributor Inhesion Asia, that passion is for the experience of fine dining, from what’s on the plate to the plate itself, as well as the history, culture and tradition that it all communicates. Through Inhesion, Chang has worked with some of the very best restaurants in the region (think, for example, Hong Kong’s three-Michelin-starred 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana and Singapore’s Odette, the latter recently named the best restaurant in Asia for the second year running) to provide, and often design from scratch, premium tableware that enhances the overall experience.
For the better part of the last decade, Chang has concentrated his efforts on reimagining the way in which Chinese food is presented and experienced. Says Chang: “After living for 23 years in Mainland China – first in Shenzhen, then Shanghai – I saw the transition of Chinese cuisine and the potential for it.” Taking his inspiration from a hand-painted, Tang Dynasty handscroll by artist Gu Honzhong called ‘The Night Revels of Han Xizai’ (韓熙載夜宴圖), which depicts a post-dinner supper with live entertainment and small sharing plates, Chang created his signature Ruyi collection for the legacy European porcelain brand Legle, for which he is the face in Asia (Inhesion holds the regional licence for the brand). Beginning as a single tableware collection, Chang saw the potential to turn Ruyi into a showcase of Chinese culinary history; in 2012, he launched Ruyi Gastronomy, a regular, travelling series of dining pop-ups that celebrate what Chang believes is the ‘lost’ art of Chinese banqueting.
“I started to research and dig back into a lot of history,” Chang explains. “I studied art history in college, I was a painter, so I used those skills to research Chinese banquets. And I realised that we’ve lost a lot of the essence in the way we eat – in the Tang Dynasty they’d have banquets starting at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, then the dinner banquet, then post-banquet you’d always move to the side room where you’re served tapas-sized food with drinks and music and singing, all the way into the wee hours. Then you have someone who would clean you up, give you a bath, put you to bed, and the next day you party again, and you party for two or three days – that’s how an invitation worked 1,300 years ago. So I said, ‘We have to bring it back’. We have lost so much of the essence of our culture and all the art of living is gone. We eat off plastic plates, or a stainless steel bowl that could be serving a dog, or a horse, or us. And we seem to be fine with it.”
Starting life as a six-course lunch with tea pairing to showcase the eponymous tableware collection, the Ruyi dining series has allowed Cheng to indulge in his keen interest in Chinese cultural history. “I realised [after the first event] that this was going to be an ongoing thing,” Chang says. “It wasn’t just going to be one chapter to showcase how to use the tableware – it became a personal pursuit in the history of China, and the art of China, and the culture of China.”
Ruyi has taken place across several major cities of Greater China, with the most recent iteration in Chengdu an ambitious exercise that celebrated the 24 flavours of Sichuan cuisine, many of which don’t have a universally accepted definition. “Even the masters of Sichuan cuisine will all have different answers [regarding the different flavours],” Chang says. “The first 17 or 18 seem to be similar, the last 6 are always different. So I went on to study it, and I wanted to define it clearly and precisely.”
The resulting menu, which is being served at celebrated Chengdu dining room Xu’s Creative Cuisine, challenges the diner to ‘walk in as a layman of Sichuan cuisine, and walk out as someone who has profound knowledge’, all in three hours. By the end of the dining journey, ‘you know exactly what the 24 flavour profiles are, what are the precise methods of cooking, and the tasting notes of each flavour’, Chang says.
As for the tableware itself, Chang looks to ancient Chinese studies of astronomy, mathematics and feng shui to inform his pieces, with an aim to create a sense of collective recollection among diners. “We never introduce anything new – we just rearrange things in a modern way,” Chang states. “I’m trying to tell people this is where we were at, and this is where we are now. I think we’ve lost a lot of things, and it’s nice to revisit them, and to see what we can get out of them. So that’s the whole idea behind Ruyi Gastronomy, it asks a lot of deep questions. Hopefully diners can start thinking about these things.”
Of course, plating is but one element of the dining experience, but Chang has made it his mission to elevate its status, especially in the Chinese context. “When you see a beautifully plated dish – whether it’s Western or Chinese cuisine – you stop and you enjoy it,” Chang says. “But what I really want people to understand is the beauty of Chinese visual elements, which has its own DNA, and its own language. And I think we can actually create our own language. When you think of the Nordic style, you always have a piece of stone, some wood, some natural stuff. And when you think European, you think of porcelain from Limoge, that Louis XIII style. But when you think of Chinese, you don’t think of anything – it seems like a bunch white plates and wok-fried stuff slapped on. But I don’t think that should be it. I think we should have our own very clear, very strong, visual DNA for Chinese cuisine. When you look at it and you know it’s definitely Chinese.”
Chang does believe that our senses allow us a subliminal head start in understanding how plating can enhance the dining experience, though. “You first enjoy a dining experience through your visual senses, before you even taste,” Chang notes. “And I can guarantee your visual sense does affect your tastebuds, like how the nose does. Table design affects two things – it affects your visual [sense], and it affects how you smell. Sometimes we dictate how we smell by choosing tableware that forces you to almost smell in a certain way. So actually we are already discreetly directing how you enjoy the food. Those underlying arrangements enhance your experience without you knowing it.”