Food Tasting or Art Installation?

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Photos by Lara Kastner

I have been collaborating with Martin Kastner of Crucial Detail Design Studio since 2003. Together we have developed over 30 new pieces of service ware in an effort to parallel the innovations of the kitchen with that of the dishes they are served on.

In some cases it didn't make sense to me functionally, aesthetically, or conceptually to serve modern gastronomy on the same bowls and plates, and using the forks and knives that have been used for over 300 years. As we began to challenge and refine the aspects of food service with success, ideas of merging Martin's approach with design and mine of cooking began to surface. We talked about trying to make a truly unique art installation where the limitations of operating a restaurant would not impede the creative possibilities of food combining with design to form a different kind of art.

Can we push further to merge the worlds of cuisine and art? Can we change how food is perceived if we create within the framework of "art" and not restaurant?

Our first baby step in this direction came in 2004 when we were invited to participate in the Food and Wine magazine's Entertaining Showcase event at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. During this time we were still in the development and construction phases of Alinea, so the event provided an opportunity for us to introduce the restaurant to the Chicago dining public for the first time, and give people a sneak peek at what the restaurant would be about.

Restaurants and chefs are constantly asked to do fundraising events to benefit various charities within the community. While most chefs are very generous with their resources and try to contribute in a meaningful way...to be completely honest, these events are a pain in the ass. Chefs are forced to meet the expectations of hundreds and even thousands of people at one time, while being operationally and creatively handcuffed. The makeshift kitchens often consist of induction burners and fold-up tables, and the use of plastic service ware and the inevitable surrendering of complete control in the manner in which the food is served and the environment it is served in becomes extremely difficult.

However, as with most things in the realm of creativity, problems provide inspiration.

Because we were looking at this as our first impression to many people, we went about the creative process much in the same way we would when approaching an aspect of designing Alinea. We analyzed all of the event's elements; the number of people per hour, the traffic flows, the characteristics of the space in which the event would be held (including the lighting, color palate, and textures of the surface), and the typical problems with events of this nature. This included the common practice of carrying a plate of food in one hand and a glass in the other while trying to both consume and be social with people, often strangers, that you were herded into the feeding line next to.

With the inherent downsides and possible solutions to them in mind, we then asked ourselves what goals we had for creating an art-meets-food experience in a unique setting. It turns out that all of the drawbacks were also sources of ideas. Suddenly the thought of hordes of people crowding an eight-foot table, waiting to eat, became an appealing way to evoke emotion through human proximity. Most people have a certain comfort zone of personal space, especially while eating...this was the communal table on steroids. How can we extenuate the human element while eating?

And the space. While our container at Alinea is designed to be intimate and residential in scale, now we had volume. Service pieces could scale to eye level heights...in fact, it only makes sense to do so: people are standing at these events, there are no tables and chairs, and so bending over to pick up or examine food on a low table is awkward. How do we expand our scope and break free from the tabletop limiting dimensions?

Of course we had to consider the venue. Why would we try to serve the same food and in the identical manner it is at Alinea? This is after all a museum exhibiting contemporary art. If the installations prioritize a spirit of experimentation, new ideas about the functions of art, different ways of seeing and defining art, and a leaning toward abstraction, then why not use that as a creative avenue as well? It frees us from the rules governing dining in a restaurant, and encourages more risk taking as well as balancing the priorities of emotional response and deliciousness.

Where does all of this lead creativity? For me, it circles right back to the restaurant. How can we take what we have learned by being forced to create within a new set of parameters and incorporate these ideas back into the dining experience at Alinea? Can the restaurant evolve to include a blend of both, encouraging a new level of guest interaction amongst each other, the food, and space?

And can we push further to merge the worlds of cuisine and art in a homogeneous way? Should we pursue food and art as their own separate disciplines? Can we create new points of reference on how food is perceived if we create within the framework of "art" and not restaurant?

I think both.

In the slide show above, we show examples of installations we have created to accommodate these types of events. You will clearly see examples of participant engagement and exploration, aspects of breaking the common social rules of eating, the potential redefining of how design and food combine to form a new kind of art, and ideas for changing the dining experience as we know it.

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Grant Achatz is chef and owner of Chicago's Alinea. He grew up in the restaurant industry, literally, with restaurateurs as parents and grandparents. More

Born in Michigan in 1974, Grant Achatz grew up in the restaurant industry, literally, with his parents and grandparents being restaurateurs. Naturally curious and always driven, he could be found in the kitchen by his twelfth birthday and over the coming years spent most of his free time there, learning and developing the very skills that would allow him to become one of the foremost innovators in the field. Early on he realized he wanted to become a chef, and upon graduating from high school, he immediately enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America. Excelling at the CIA, Achatz graduated and ascended the culinary ladder at several prestigious restaurants, including the acclaimed French Laundry in Napa Valley. Achatz worked closely with owner Thomas Keller, and thrived in his highly creative, dedicated environment. After two years, he became Keller's Sous Chef. In a decisive move to broaden his knowledge and experience, Achatz accepted a position as Assistant Winemaker at La Jota Vineyards after four years at The French Laundry. Then in 2001, he returned to the Midwest when he accepted the Executive Chef position at the four-star Trio in Evanston, Illinois. Achatz flourished at Trio, garnering accolades including being named the James Beard Foundation's 2003 Rising Star Chef in America and one of ten "Best New Chefs in America" by Food & Wine in 2002. Under Achatz's lead, Trio received four stars from the Chicago Tribune and Chicago magazine and was honored with five stars from the celebrated Mobil Travel Guide in 2004. Known worldwide in culinary circles as one of the leaders in progressive cuisine, Achatz realized a lifelong dream by opening Alinea in Chicago in May 2005. From day one, Achatz and Alinea received extraordinary attention and unprecedented accolades. The Chicago Tribune and Chicago magazine both awarded the restaurant four stars within months of opening, and the James Beard Foundation nominated Alinea as the Best New Restaurant in America within a year. In September 2005, The New York Times identified Achatz as the "next great American chef." In October a year later, Alinea received the coveted Five Diamond Award from AAA, and Ruth Reichl of Gourmet magazine declared Alinea the "Best Restaurant in America," an honor bestowed only once every five years. Under Achatz's leadership, Alinea continues to receive worldwide attention for its hypermodern, emotional approach to dining. In both 2007 and 2008, Alinea was named one of "The S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants" published by Restaurant magazine, and Achatz himself received the James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef in America award, the culinary equivalent of an Oscar, in 2008. Achatz has appeared on the Today show, CBS Sunday Morning, the Food Network, the Discovery Channel, and PBS, and has been featured in dozens of periodicals across the US and the globe including countries as far away as Sweden, Finland, Great Britain, Spain, Italy, the Philippines, and France.
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