Adventures in Latex and Silicone

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.