Cutting Edge

Michael Nagrant / 11.29.06

The lobby of the Museum of Contemporary Art looks like the set of the fictional “Saturday Night Live” show “Sprockets.” A gaggle of Dieter clones, men and women clothed head to toe in beatnik black, are being briefed on their responsibilities for hosting tonight’s Food and Wine entertaining showcase.

The rest of the foyer is a chambered nautilus of rope line enclosing a group of broad-shouldered men and impossibly tall and coltish women. Sprinkled in among the Rush Street glitterati are amply girthed men and sturdy women, intrepid foodies, whose only interest in glamour skews toward the culinary creations waiting on the chef’s tables a floor above. Tonight they will witness the birth of a serveware piece.

Every birth has its parents, and the culinary progenitors of this moment are Grant Achatz and Martin Kastner.

Achatz is the chef/owner of Alinea restaurant, and with his fair complexion and impeccable chef’s whites, he looks like a Jedi, a young Obi Wan wielding an offset chef’s palette knife as if it were a light saber.

Kastner is Achatz’s partner, the multi-disciplinary problem solver behind Crucial Detail, the design firm that buttresses Achatz’s gastronomy with cutting-edge serveware. Kastner favors a red zip-up cardigan with an unraveling right sleeve, an Iron City Beer t-shirt and jeans–a kind of Kurt Cobain grunge ensemble circa 1993, complemented by a halo of short fuzzy hair and beard stubble.

In the Czech Republic when Kastner was growing up, he had to serve a compulsory military service or work for a state agency, so he ended up training as a blacksmith and lived in an apartment in Horsovsky Tyn, a state-owned early Gothic bishop’s castle, where he focused on maintaining and restoring ornamental metal works including gates and crude fourteenth- and fifteenth-century forgings for window rails. He was also responsible for feeding a steady diet of apples, fish and cream cheese to the brown bears that lived in the castle’s moat.

One particular challenge of the job was that there was a supply of medieval locks, but no keys to open them. Kastner constructed dyed metal blanks, and took impressions of the innards of the locks to figure out their mechanisms. Unfortunately, there were no Renaissance safes or baroque lockboxes full of treasure attached to the locks to sustain his interest. Kastner says, “The castle was owned by one family for 300 years, so they knew where anything would have been hidden, plus the Nazis and then communists broke into everything that had a lock on it.”

To excel, Kastner had to channel the state of mind of Gothic blacksmiths, thinking in terms of the equipment and technology they had at their disposal. He says, “You spend so much time in another century that ultimately your personality is lost.”

Eventually, Kastner saw design as the perfect way to use his craft skills and, at the same time, pursue art. He enrolled at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague, in the Studio of Metals and Jewelry where he studied with Vratislav Karel Novak. While in Prague, he met his wife Lara, an American expatriate from Michigan and, as he says, “she imported me to America” where he later studied with Susan R. Ewing at Miami University.

As a means of survival while living in San Diego, Kastner took a job helping engaged couples design their wedding rings. There was no time to pursue the theory he studied in college, and soon after he found his way to designing serveware with Achatz. Of his current vocation he says, “I never settled for anything different. It never crossed my mind that I could do anything else.”

Their collaboration began in 2003 while Achatz was still at Trio. Looking for a way to serve frozen hibiscus tea, Achatz emailed thirty designers, and only Kastner responded. Kastner was compelled by the fact that Achatz made no specific demands, rather he was looking for a new way to serve food. It was the first of many culinary “problems” the chef would send Kastner’s way.

The relationship had a seemingly inauspicious beginning. Achatz had in mind a lollipop-type device, and Kastner returned with riffs on this idea, including a lollipop in a holder, but he favored a multi-functional tripod that collected the ideas of a holder and the lollipop as a singular idea. As Kastner says, “He [Achatz] usually has a specific idea of what the solution is, and I try to steer away from that as far as I can.”

That approach was ultimately what appealed to Achatz. Achatz says, “Martin is very smart. Usually the solution I give him is very predictable, because it’s coming from someone who doesn’t have a design mind. My design doesn’t harness the essence of the food, and it’s nonfunctional. He came to me with CAD images of the lollipop, but then he showed me the tripod which captured not only the essence, but the function of delivering the food. I knew exactly why he did it. It was exactly what I do with food, and after that we clicked.”

The traditional restaurant rubric is to pursue muted décor and serveware, so as not to detract from the food, but at Alinea, the strong interplay of Kastner’s pieces and Achatz’s food creates an identity. By themselves the serveware pieces are beautiful objects, but together the organic nature of the food combined with the rawness of industrial materials is sublime.

Ultimately though, it’s still about the food. As Achatz says, “You can’t eat the service piece. When something is set down, I admit the attention is drawn to the service piece. I don’t have a problem with that, but when they eat the food, and it’s in their mouth, that’s an experience the service piece can’t provide, and that’s the core of what I do as a cook.”

What Achatz and Kastner both do is focus and refine until they reduce a problem to its most essential and perfect form and, since the lollipop, there’s been a continuous stream of culinary “problems” articulated by Achatz and a series of solutions completed by Kastner.

Sometimes the roles reverse, and Kastner’s solutions present problems for Achatz to solve. Kastner is currently working on a series of porcelain plates that mimic natural landscapes with valleys and peaks. Liquid ingredients will follow the natural curves of the plate, and solids can be perched on the peaks, requiring Achatz to react to the geography of the plate.

Achatz says, “Creativity is a result of limitations, or it’s the result of randomness. In both cases, the plates he’s [Kastner’s] working on, both of those scenarios exist. The variation gives us more possibility, and the plate makes you think about manipulating the food.”

Other Kastner solutions include the “squid,” which looks like an upside-down whisk whose tines first held a tempura-battered shrimp impaled on a vanilla bean, and the “bow,” which instead of holding food aloft, emphasized light and motion and embraced gravity. The food hangs from a wire as if it were being aired out on clothesline for the diner’s contemplation.

The dish that first graced the “bow” was a piece of dehydrated bacon coiled in butterscotch with ribbon-like shreds of apple leather, and a confetti of thyme, Australian Murray River sea salt and pepper, a study in balance that employed counterpoints of sweetness, saltiness and fat. This is the dish they will serve at the MCA.

Events like the MCA introduce their own set of problems. Many chefs dread these occasions, because it takes them out of the kitchen and the controlled environment of the dining room, and they have to feed a large mass of people in a relatively short period of time. In the restaurant, a diner can contemplate the bacon hanging from the bow and move the piece around to see the translucency and crispness of the bacon, but at the MCA, the serving area is stationary, requiring a different presentation to emphasize the inherent properties of the food. Achatz says, “How do you do that in an artistic and integral way?” He adds, “When doing events like these you have to be realistic about how aggressive you can get and still put out a quality product for 800 people.”

With that problem in hand, Kastner hunkered down in his studio, a former livery stable in Wicker Park shadowed by the rusty steel girders of the Blue Line. While the thunderous rumble of the El train clattered by every few minutes, he boiled things down to their essence, cueing on aesthetic, functional and emotional considerations.

As an immigrant and a polyglot–Kastner speaks French, Russian, German, Czech, and English–Kastner is highly attuned to the nuance of language, and finds himself on the outside looking in. In America, he says, there’s “a lack of craftsmanship, down to street cleaners. Sloppiness is everywhere, and it’s contagious. The smallest amount of energy is expended to get the reward. That’s fine economically, but it’s not a great way to participate in life.” It’s also why he’s named his design company Crucial Detail. For him, everything pivots on the smallest thing.

Kastner’s not out to reinvent the fork and knife, rather he’s interested in taking a more efficient approach to solving the multiple problems that the knife and fork are supposed to address. He says, “The reason the knife and fork exist in an unchanged form is that they’ve achieved equilibrium of versatility and precision. They address a scope of functions fairly well. There’s not one thing they do extremely well, but they do a lot of them at a fairly good level.”

There’s also a sense that the problems he faces aren’t new. What’s new is the context, and ultimately the solutions to the old problems. Rather than making a dish, serving it on a plate and then having the diner grab a spoon from the table to eat, Kastner might construct a porcelain pedestal that acts as plate and spoon. A diner grabs the column of the pedestal as if it was the stem of a wine glass and eats the food directly from the piece.

For the MCA event he says, “You’re plating, setting the plate on the table, people are taking it, then they throw it out. There’s all this extraneous noise including garbage bins. You lose control over how the food’s consumed.”

For the MCA piece, Kastner’s quest to take back that control started with the properties of the bacon. He was particularly interested in the rigidity and self-supporting nature of the dehydrated pork.

Occasionally he’ll start with a sketch or a vector model, but sometimes Kastner finds that he’ll create a visually arresting sketch that’s misleading from a functional standpoint. He prefers getting his hands dirty, a tactile nod to his roots as a craftsman.

On the MCA piece, he first experimented with a clip and counterweight system, but found that the extraneous mechanism took away from the bacon itself. Instead, he settled on two simpler mockups, what look like a stainless-steel model of telephone poles with two spring-tempered wires strung between. The wires are flexible and yet rigid enough to retain their shape even when multiple pieces of bacon are added and removed. Rather than hanging, as on the “bow,” the self-supporting nature of the rigid bacon is emphasized. It’s placed in the wires, the dried red meaty and white fatty striations hanging out like the cantilevered Frank Lloyd Wright balconies of Falling Water.

One model is sleek and skinny, the other is sturdier, with the thick side supports acting as blinds to adjacent pieces of bacon. The models are also mounted at different heights to test for ergonomics.

A week before the event, Karl Deuben, a lanky dark-haired food runner from Alinea comes over to test the models. Deuben will be one of the chefs at the MCA event. Deuben puts the piece through its paces. As he puts in multiple pieces of bacon, the model starts to shimmy in a harmonic motion, recalling the Tacoma Narrows bridge collapse.

The wire will have to be shored up. Deuben considers the black background of the base and how it will provide a nice frame for the light-colored bacon, much like the dark wood tables at Alinea. Kastner and Deuben talk about napkin placement and the relationship of the chef’s prep table to the piece, as well as the best way to keep the serveware surface clean. Kastner’s wife Lara busts out a video camera and documents the process. She’s also responsible for the arresting Alinea Web site photography.

Deuben moved from Portland, Maine, where he used to cook at a fine dining restaurant named Hugo’s, in hopes of moving into the Alinea kitchen when a cook spot opened up. Deuben says, “This is why I’m here. Where else would I get an opportunity like this, to not only cook, but to think in terms of how a diner operates.”

Like Kastner and his wife, Deuben’s part of the wide net of the Alinea team. You get the feeling that Alinea and Kastner’s studio are serving the same role that the Café Deux Magots did for the Impressionists or the Algonquin Hotel for the editors and writers of the New Yorker. It’s a movement. As Achatz says, “You build this big pool of people around you that share ideas, that share the same passion and dedication, and it just pushes things forward.”

The line between art and craftsmanship has always been a thin one, but when you start to shift paradigms the way Kastner’s pieces do and Achatz’s food does, you’re crossing that line. The progression of famous French chefs from Marie Antoine Careme to Auguste Escoffier to Fernand Point is a clear and orderly connection. Even the radical departure of Nouvelle cuisine practiced by the Troisgrois brothers and Paul Bocuse was really a simplified version of their forebears’ excess. Charlie Trotter and Thomas Keller, Achatz’s mentor from the French Laundry, both took nouvelle cuisine and introduced fusion and whimsy, but their changes still echoed the traditions of fine dining.

In contrast, and in evolutionary terms, what Achatz is doing feels like a punctuated equilibrium. It’s a broad jump, a cuisine that no longer resembles its antecedents.

Also, like any art, Achatz’s food and Kastner’s serveware provoke. There are non-verbal cues that pull at your imagination, into which you inject your own interpretations, fears and emotions. At its most basic, the food and the pieces make you think. They no longer just sustain, nourish and occasionally amuse.

Kastner says of his pieces, “A lot of things get projected into them that you cannot control.” He adds, “This is about challenging the perception and convention of something. Introducing visual tension is the means that I have to contribute. There’s a sense of weight and stability that’s attached to the convention of a bowl, by playing with that you make people think.”

Back at the MCA, the rope line has been unleashed. Kastner’s finished piece has been mounted on a piece of black-painted red oak. In response to Deuben’s test run the week before, stainless-steel capillary tubes have been added to stabilize the spring wires that hold the bacon. The overall height of the piece has been lowered so that people approaching the piece can see the presentation of bacon from above. Alinea has even limited reservations on this particular night to compensate for the three cooks working the event, and Achatz stayed behind to manage quality at the restaurant with the shortened staff.

At the Alinea table, Deuben and two other chefs painstakingly construct the course, piping thin threads of butterscotch around the bacon, garnishing with thyme, apple and seasoning, and place them in the wires. People approach the table, some gingerly, but most voraciously. One woman spots the piece and gasps, “This is really unique.”

And it is. Save chef Homaro Cantu and the pastry chef Ben Roche of Moto restaurant clad in safety goggles serving up “transmogrified” blinis dipped in liquid nitrogen, and a shot glass of what tastes like Thanksgiving dinner redolent with liquid layers of squash, cranberry, turkey, gravy and mashed potatoes, almost all the other chefs at the event are serving from plastic cups and plates.

The piece is a success. Without hesitation, people grab the bacon and pop it in to their mouth. The bacon crunches, oozing salt and fat while the gooey butterscotch encapsulating a fragrant waft of thyme, releases a tart punch from the apple shreds on the back of the tongue.

In fact, it’s almost too much of a success. After about an hour, the Alinea chefs can barely keep up with the demand. Yet, even in this harried atmosphere, they proceed with the same deliberate precision as if they were making their first piece. Deuben notices a woman in the corner, one of the catering-company employees who’s been restocking napkins for the table for over an hour. In spite of the rush, he makes sure to take care of her, walking over and handing her a piece of the bacon to sample. After two hours, the chefs have ripped through their entire supply of 800 pieces of bacon.

Steve Sola, a guy who works in plastics, stops by to shake Kastner’s hand and thanks him for “making eating fun.” I ask Sola what he thinks of the piece, and he says, “It’s like an elegant assembly line. It’s perfect if you’ve gotta serve 700 people in an evening and, look, there’s no backed-up line of people waiting.”

This article first appeared in Newcity Chicago.