The innovative cuisine at Alinea, Grant Achatz's forward-looking "food lab," is meant to appeal to all five senses. Each element of the restaurant, down to the block it's located on, has been handpicked for its contribution to the total dining experience. So Achatz wasn't going to be content loading up on salad bowls and silverware at a local restaurant supply store. Instead he turned to designer Martin Kastner and his studio, Crucial Detail, to create a unique line of innovative serviceware with a simple purpose--the enjoyment of delicious food.
Achatz and Kastner have been working together since 2003, when Achatz was the head chef at Trio in Evanston. Kastner, who started Crucial Detail in San Diego in 1998, was one of 30 designers who received an e-mail from Achatz looking for a collaborator. Though Kastner had limited experience making serving pieces--his background is jewelry and furnishings--he responded. According to Achatz, he was the only designer that did. Their first project was a tripod that would hold a ball of frozen hibiscus tea. "He wanted to serve it so it could be eaten like a lollipop," Kastner says. Other creations followed, and when Achatz left Trio to start up Alinea in 2004, he convinced Kastner to move to Chicago and work with him full-time.
"I don't really understand food," Kastner says, but he and Achatz think that's an asset--his designs aren't constrained by tradition. Usually they begin with a specific dish, but other times Kastner will come up with something just because it seems useful. The antenna, for example, is a long steel skewer that runs through a circular base; guests are meant to eat directly off the end. "It bothered me, using a knife and fork with a skewer--it's really clumsy," he says. "This is a logical solution to a problem." The bow, a thin U-shaped implement strung with a wire across the top, is used to suspend a slice of fish or strip of bacon in the air. The designs may look space-age, but Kastner isn't just going for the ooh factor. He says the implements allow the chef to "control how food hits the palate." Because the dish can only be eaten in a specific way, the flavor is maximized. "You could never have this type of control with normal silverware," he says.
Kastner will manufacture anywhere from 30 to 120 copies of each piece, depending on how quickly Alinea will need to turn them over in a night. They're built using resilient materials like stainless steel and porcelain, and each batch takes several days to a couple weeks to complete. The majority of the work is done in his Wicker Park studio, a former livery stable, and though he'll occasionally contract some parts out, he always handles the finishing and final assembly himself.
As with dishes on the menu, Achatz eventually retires serving pieces to make room for new concepts. Once they're taken out of circulation the pieces are put in storage at the restaurant, though they're occasionally dusted off for special guests. Achatz has sold a few of the retired pieces when customers have asked, and Kastner has plans to make his creations available to the general public by the end of the year. They're currently only available wholesale, at prices ranging from $6 to $35 per unit. "The interest has been huge, beyond any expectation," he says. The most popular item so far is the cork presenter, a set of prongs used to hold a wine cork for inspection. Kastner admits that he feels "kind of bummed" whenever a piece is retired. "Of course there are my personal preferences. I think they all enhance the experience," he says. "But I understand it. Once they're out of my hands, they're just tools."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Rob Warner.