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Dishing out fine art

How does one serve an ice chip to a guest at a fine dining restaurant? This is the type of question Martin Kastner, founder and designer of Chicago-based Crucial Detail, and Grant Achatz, then executive chef at Trio, needed to discuss when the chef wanted to serve a verjus and thyme ice chip to his guests as part of their dining experience.

Kastner designs serviceware for Achatz, who is currently chef and owner of three Michelin-starred Alinea, Aviary and Next, as well as other restaurants. He draws from his background as a blacksmith in the Czech Republic and a healthy dose of curiosity to develop both delivery mechanisms and service pieces that are artistic and functional.

So how does one deliver an ice chip that offers a flash of flavor? Kastner begins by asking himself what type of form or material would make this work. Turns out it’s by using sandblasted glass and an acrylic ring.

Martin Kastner at workPhotograph by Lara Kastner Photography

“The acrylic ring is an insulator and the glass is dropped in there,” Kastner says. “The whole assembly is frozen. It works kind of like a medieval refrigerator where you have a piece of ice in the hole. The cold doesn’t have a place to escape. It stays cold relatively long until the whole piece is brought up to room temperature.”

Achatz is known as one of the leaders in molecular gastronomy or progressive cuisine, yet Kastner didn’t know who he was when Achatz reached out. The chef emailed Kastner, asking him to help develop tools to deliver his dishes.

“I got a random email from Grant saying, ‘I’m a chef looking for someone to design new ways of serving food,’” says Kastner. “For me, the fact that there were no pre-conceived notions of what that [meant], no limit on what that would be or should be—it felt so open. I found that very interesting and exciting so I responded and we started to have a conversation about it.”

Cooking has evolved as has the preparation side of fine dining, but the delivery mechanisms had not, Kastner adds. “In some instances, it was about having the ability to create food that otherwise couldn’t be able to be delivered because they’d disintegrate by the time they’d get it to the table.”

“In other cases it felt like the types of interactions with the food weren’t really corresponding with the idea of what the food should be about. The fork and plate felt very stale and inadequate for some of these experiences.” As diners crave a more intimate experience with their food, it’s natural for chefs to consider how they’re going to push their own boundaries and then figure out how to carry out those concepts into the overall experience without making it seem like a circus act.

A fork bowl used at Alinea.Photograph by Lara Kastner Photography

The opportunity turned out to be fortuitous for Kastner since his interest lies in tactile experiences and interactions with objects. “Design kind of falls at the intersection of making and a conceptual approach to our experiences,” he says. That’s what mostly interested him in collaborating with Achatz, a partnership that began when he was at Trio and before Achatz opened Alinea.

Sometimes all that’s needed is something utilitarian.

In other cases, it’s about looking more conceptually at the overall experience, as was the need with the Hot Potato/Cold Potato dish served at Alinea. It uses a wax bowl as the serving mechanism and is one of Kastner’s favorite concepts because it’s not an actual piece.

“How can we do this?” Kastner asked himself when Achatz presented him with the challenge. “How can we deliver something that is hot and cold at the same time?”

He kept thinking about what kind of materials would allow him to do this? He began to think of things that are not inherently cold or hot to try and figure it out. His “aha” moment came from a childhood experience eating ice cream.

“[There were these] ice cream bars that I remember as a kid eating [that] were kind of really bad with super waxy chocolate,” he recalls. “I remember that it didn’t actually melt in your hand if you grabbed it by the chocolate but it also didn’t feel cold even though it was frozen. That kind of what brought me to thinking about paraffin wax as the medium.”

Kastner ended up designing a set of molds for the paraffin wax to be made into a bowl. The team at Alinea serves the chilled soup in them. The paraffin is pierced with a stainless steel pin that elevates the hot potato above the chilled soup so when the guest pulls the pin out, the potato drops into the cold soup and “you take it as a single slurp, kind of like how you eat an oyster,” he explains. “You get a sensation of hot and cold at the same time – and that was the goal.”

Another challenge was trying to eliminate the in-between steps between preparation and consumption.

Crucial detail — portholePhotograph by Lara Kastner Photography

There are so many steps where food is handled and transferred, says Kastner. “In this case, I was thinking of a self-supporting skewer as being the only vehicle from start to finish where you use it to prepare the food on it, you cook the food on it, and then you serve on it.” Each skewer is 14 inches long.

These are the design challenges that occupy Kastner’s head day in and day out in his industrial looking studio that leave him with little time to do anything else. In addition to creating pieces for Alinea, he produces pieces for other restaurants and consumers via a healthy online e-commerce business, which he manages with the help of a team of three.

Dishing out fine art isn’t something one necessarily learns in a classroom, and Kastner admits it’s hard to recommend how others can learn from his experiences because it all happened organically for him.

“I think, if anything would have prepared me for this, [it was] maybe being a teenager during a revolution,” he says. “It makes everything so relative. Everything you believed up to that point, that you thought was real turns out not to be real and not to be true.”

Having an innate sense of curiosity and “just being foolish enough,” he adds, definitely helps him design the most artistic serving pieces being used in some of the best restaurants in the world.