Delicious Events

Delicious event: stories behind the serviceware on Fête’s Crucial Detail studio tour

Table full of Martin Kastner's designs
Table full of Crucial Detail designs, with the designer’s hand

For my second Fête event this weekend, I had the rare chance to tour the Crucial Detail studio, led by designer Martin Kastner. He’s best known for designing breathtaking servingware for chef Grant Achatz’s Alinea, Next, and Aviary. His beautiful vessels are meant to translate Achatz’s innovative cooking techniques into each dish’s aesthetic presentation on the table. In a discussion moderated by Columbia College professor Kevin Henry, Kastner discussed how his work lands at an intersection of food and design.

Kastner grew up in the Czech Republic and started a career as a castle blacksmith. After marrying an American and relocating to her home country, however, he realized he was essentially unemployable (not too many castles here). It was then that he first explored design, wanting to be more personally expressive rather than retracing the creative steps of others. He also ended up helping his wife at a bakery many mornings and was intrigued by dough as a material, which planted a seed in his mind to think more critically about food.

In the late ’90s, Kastner received an email inquiry from Achatz completely out of the blue. Achatz had found Kastner in a web search for designers in the Midwest, which only returned a few dozen sites at the time. Kastner’s first project for Achatz was the Tripod, designed to serve an ice sphere that stood up on three legs when placed on the table, then collapsed into a lollipop-style stick when the diner picked it up. From there, the rest is history. Kastner went on to tell some of the stories behind his designs, many of which I’ve been fortunate enough to experience at Alinea and Aviary.

For example, the Porthole. It’s in use at Aviary and is likely Kastner’s most famous design due to a recent Kickstarter campaign that hit 10,000 orders within its first week. It was designed for a time-based cocktail that infuses ingredients over a longer period, so that with each pour, the drinker should be able to taste and see the difference in the drink. “The goal is to drive behavior,” Kastner said, so that the intended drinking process would be clear enough to the customer to not need further guidance. Interestingly, when the Aviary team first conceived this slow-infused cocktail, they originally envisioned serving it in a teapot, but Kastner suggested that it would be much more effective to have it visible through a sort of window, and to somehow enclose the drink in a marine environment (like a porthole). The vessel got a huge response, and I can attest that it’s a gorgeous, dramatic presentation, as seen in the close-up above.

Also in use at Aviary are trios of Petals (seen at right above). They were designed to serve small bites in multiples, but still leave as small a footprint on the table as possible. They also needed to have the ability to preheat and pre-chill the vessels, since as Kastner put it, “food is a time-based medium.” When I saw the plates hit the table at Aviary, I noticed that they were elegant and multi-leveled, but never considered the amount of space they took up on the table, or their differing temperatures. While I’m sure that lack of awareness was exactly the point – for the experience to be seamless and the focus to remain on the food – it makes it that much more meaningful to know what’s really behind these designs.

Kastner delved into the story of the Antenna as well, which I immediately remembered from my meal at Alinea. The idea came from Kastner’s frustration with the inefficiency and clumsiness of bites being presented on a skewer, but then having a knife and fork alongside the plate too. His solution was this single, streamlined, provocative utensil. “When that lands on the table, people stop talking,” Kastner said. It’s dynamic, since it moves around in the air, and the chef can play with textures, flavors, and sound in a unified way. Most fascinating to me, though, was his explanation that it also allows the chef to have precise control over which part of the dish hits each area of the mouth. Pretty awesome.

“I never expected to be in this culinary freak show that I’m in,” Kastner admitted, laughing, but embraces it as a specialty in which he’s found great success. Kastner stressed that it’s the satisfaction of finding the right solution, both in form and in function, that really keeps him motivated.

Servingware for Wolfgang Puck's newly renovated Spago in the works
Servingware in the works for Wolfgang Puck’s newly renovated Spago
Ceramic glazes in the studio
Glazes in the studio

The details: View more Crucial Detail designs, and the full Fête event schedule.

Food for Thought

Food for Thought: A few words on tasting menus

Three-part pea course, Alinea
Three-part English pea course, Alinea, August 2011

This week, Chicago magazine’s Jeff Ruby has created some interesting dialogue around the downfalls of foodie culture. I was inspired by his response to a recent Vanity Fair feature in which Corby Kummer, as Ruby put it, “spends nearly 5,000 words bashing tasting menus.” I agree with Ruby’s take on it all, and wanted to add my own reflection.

I was lucky enough to enjoy lengthy meals as a teenager at such legends as Charlie Trotter’s and Trio, both of which were long enough ago that I sadly can’t recall many details. More recently, I’ve been wowed by tasting menus at the likes of One Market, Mexique, and Alinea.

Simply put, these have been my most exhilarating dining experiences. At Alinea, the three hours flew by as each of the 18 courses brought a different kind of surprise and delight. The three English pea variations in the photos above – warm on top of the bowl, room-temperature in the bowl’s first layer, and frozen in the bowl’s second layer – were explosively flavorful and artfully presented. Chef Grant Achatz succeeded in showing me an unforgettable new way (or three) to look at the humble pea. I count this among many insights during that meal and others that I’m convinced wouldn’t have occurred, or at least had the same impact, if part of a traditional menu. It just doesn’t work for a diner to produce the same kind of rhythm, variety, and intermittent revelation by placing a personal order.

In the article, Kummer laments that in their heyday, icons Ferran Adrià (El Bulli) and Thomas Keller (The French Laundry) “shift[ed] the balance of power from diner to chef.” But really, isn’t that what you want from a great restaurant anyway? I don’t visit a much-lauded restaurant expecting to be in control and dictate my every whim from start to finish, as if I were preparing my own meal in someone else’s kitchen. Instead, I visit the restaurant – and pay good money – so that someone extremely skilled in their trade can demonstrate that skill through the meal they prepare and the experience they orchestrate. It goes back to the “is food art?” debate, which Kummer touches on; for me, chefs demand the same respect as any other kind of artisan.

However, I trust Kummer that some tasting menus can just be too long (thankfully I can’t speak from personal experience). Of course a menu that lacks the proper attention to detail or fails on some other level would drag on and on, just like a bad movie or poorly produced album. Kummer also gets it right with the following sentiment, in describing what he called a “tedious” meal at Eleven Madison Park: “Certainly, surprise and delight and originality shouldn’t be banished. But in meals this long and ambitious you hope to see the soul of the chef—as you do with Keller and Achatz.” That is truly what made our meal at Alinea: amid all the fancy culinary tricks, we caught a glimpse of the unmistakable heart that Achatz puts into that restaurant, and saw why he demands excellence in every aspect of his business.

I think there will always be a place for both kinds of menus. There is much to be said for selecting a dish that sounds best to you or suits your taste at that moment, and then finding it to be brilliantly executed, delicious, and satisfying. For that reason, there will always be chefs who aim to give you the best “___” (fill in the blank) you’ve ever eaten, after you’ve first indicated that it’s what you’d like to eat. But why not trust a chef to dazzle you with his or her own decisions? When it comes to dining at the best of the best, I’m gleefully willing to be passive and go along for what promises to be a tasty, inspiring ride.