Food Tasting or Art Installation?

By Grant Achatz

See web-only content:
http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/04/food-tasting-or-art-installation/16341/
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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/04/food-tasting-or-art-installation/16341/