Adventures in Latex and Silicone

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Picking up with our question of last week: Where does the plate end?

This idea we evolved after years of intermittent and months of intensive thinking posed some unique challenges. Starting with the original thought of an oversized plate, Martin and I explored many types of rigid materials. To mentally test the concepts functionality we tore the experience apart from a service perspective.

    • How do we physically carry a four-foot square "plate" through a busy dining room in an elegant fashion?

    • How can we place it on the table with guests seated around it without smacking someone in the head?

    • How do we wash this giant slab of material, as it doesn't fit in the dishwasher?

    • Once the food is consumed, and some residual foodstuffs exist on the "plate", how it is removed in a graceful way, without tilting and thereby soiling the guests' clothes if food were to drip or roll off?

    • Where are these giant "plates" stored?

This concept also helps us break the standard mechanics of eating. In some cases no flatware is provided and diners are required to use only their hands for consumption.

The list of questions went on and on, until we were forced to admit that a rigid material was a poor solution.

Martin suggested sheet latex. But, he said, it's hard to find and relatively expensive. And it is most commonly used in the manufacture of clothing destined for the S & M and pornography trades. He told a funny story about trying to procure the product for a kinetic sculpture he created in a Prague subway tunnel (it involved seedy characters and schoolteachers and is best not gone into here, at least not in detail).

Martin's idea of a flexible material did, though, solve many of our mechanical issues of transportation to and from the table, storage, food safety, and cleaning. After some testing, the latex provided its own difficulties. It smelled, and the issue of allergies was a concern. Switching to silicone seemed to be the best solution. After 10 solid weeks of sourcing, testing different colors, thicknesses, densities, and textures, we settled on a product.

The silicone sheet is cut to the dimensions of the table and rolled tightly to form a mailing tube sized cylinder. A few minutes before the food arrives at the table, a service team member places the roll in the middle of the table. As an object it is certainly out of the normal range of familiarity in a restaurant, providing an immediate reaction of intrigue as guests converse about what the purpose of the tube is.

Just before the mise en place is marched out to the dining room for plating, the server asks the guest to unroll the cylinder, thereby covering the table. It covers the surface much like a tablecloth on a backyard picnic table. The tactile feel of the silky silicone is pleasant, and the tabletop or "stage" transforms from an ebonized hard wood surface to a soft draped gray plane. The table is then prepared as it typically would be: wine and water glasses are placed and filled, and the required flatware is delivered.

Depending on the number of people in the party, the chefs are dispatched in the dining room armed with various tools and utensils to aid in the presentation. The ingredients can be composed in different styles depending on the desired effect. With our boundaries expanded to a scale never before possible, we have the option of forcing the guests to interact with each other in unique ways.

For instance, perhaps we create one giant plating of a concept. A blown-up version in the style of a typical Alinea presentation. Since the entire table surface is utilized, some components may be out of the immediate reach of some members of the table. The guests are supplied with service ware, and a family-style eating event takes place; dining companions asking others to "Please pass a dollop of puree, a dusting of powder and portion of protein."

In some cases we showcase the individuality of chefs. Four cooks converge on a table of four diners. While each chef is using the same foodstuffs, each presents the dish in front of a guest based on his personal whimsy. Same flavor profile--yet an example of independent imagination.

This concept also helps us break the standard mechanics of eating. In some cases no flatware is provided and diners are required to use only their hands for consumption.

All of the variations provide new avenues to explore:

For the chefs--an expanded opportunity for creative expression.

For the restaurant--the means to control the dining experience in a novel way.

For the guests--an innovative way to interact with their companions, the food, and the creators.

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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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