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chefg

Alinea Serviceware

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In November of 2002 I decided to pursue the development of service ware to support the cuisine we were producing. This process was initiated by one dish; we wanted to present a frozen sucker of unusual flavors. The making of the actual dish seemed easy…basically pick a flavor. But finding the appropriate holder proved very difficult. It was this difficulty that forced us to entertain the thought of building are own.

I contacted over 30 designers via email explaining my desire to produce service pieces based on function as the priority as opposed to aesthetics. Pieces would be built around the food, supporting the dish based on its characteristics. Of the 30 designers I contacted only one replied, Martin Kastner of Crucial Detail. We bounced emails back and forth for a period of time, as we got to know each other’s desire to be involved in this collaboration the process developed into more than just a holder for a frozen sucker.

As you can see

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Martin proposed several solutions before we settled on the final form. He suggested that the sphere of ice had enough strength to support three pivoting legs.

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The legs would become the holder, and when squeezed they would collapse to form the utensil from which the pop would be eaten.

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We realized that the service of food has remained basically the same for the last 200 years. Looking at how cuisine had developed in the last ten years it became obvious that the need to support the food functionally and emotionally was crucial to the success of the cuisine itself. The involvement of the serving pieces and actual eating utensils plays an enormous role in the emotions that guests can experience while dining. The pieces can add humor, surprise, intrigue, excitement and even a sense of intimidation to the meal. When these emotions are triggered, it leaves a very personal stamp on the experience based on the individual’s reactions. I realized the synergy of food and the serving pieces helps the chef convey the message to the guest. A personalized emotional experience is created, solidifying a meal into a form of art.

As food has advanced in technique it has at times become more difficult to serve. For example we wanted to create palate cleanser that was a single bite of intensely flavored ice. I wanted the food to quickly melt on the palate as opposed to the normal sorbet course. We created an ice chip the size of a half dollar and about 3 mm thick. This rapid dissolving is the essence of a palate cleanser…if its purpose is to refresh do you really want multiple bites? One bite…an intense clearing that lacks time and monotony is what we decided this course should be. The problem was finding something that we could serve this very thin ice chip on. This led to the creation of the eye.

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Of course sight is essential to conveying emotion and in all of the pieces developed we look at the aesthetic value. But in some cases the final form is very dramatic. This is the case of the squid.

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Upon the creation of the Tempura Shrimp cranberry, preserved lemon, vanilla fragrance we found it necessary to present the composition in an upright position. This would give the guest a visual cue as to how to eat the dish, lowering the end into their mouth while keeping the vanilla bean vertical. Since the dish was tempura fried it was necessary to provide air circulation to avoid steam from softening the exterior. All of these attributes lead to the design of a very dramatic piece that executes the function but also adds a high level of visual appeal.

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During the course of developing these pieces we made conscious efforts to create pieces that would change the mechanics of eating. The repetition of lifting a piece of silverware to ones mouth seemed unnecessary in some cases, and this thought lead Martin to the antenna concept.

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The goal was to eliminate the need for a plate and utensils with the exception of the skewer itself. It becomes the only vehicle in the process of preparation, serving, and consumption of the course. Additionally it controls the way the three different components of the dish hit the palate due to their position on the skewer.

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This helps us achieve complexity in flavor and texture.

After several discussions about serving pieces and what we were trying to achieve, Martin approached me with a concept that involved hiding the food.

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This had been done before; we have all experience the dramatic lifting of a cloche…revealing the food underneath. But what about taking that a step further? Hold the surprise of what was “underneath” until it was on the guest’s palate. We have been working on the pouch since March.

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This service piece could help us provide a great sense of excitement and intrigue when a given course is served. This concept has not yet been completed. As you can see we started with a few approaches and it has evolved into something quite different.

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The bow was designed specifically to hang foodstuffs that had characteristics of lightness, motion, and delicacy. Rather than lie a thinly sliced piece of cured duck breast or a piece of savory vegetable leather on a plate, we could give the food dimension.... and encourage movement by creating a piece that swayed slightly when transported and placed on the table.

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It has become quite typical in high-end restaurants to serve small bites on spoons propped up on folded napkins. I wanted to create a plate that would support the spoon from the bowl not the handle. When Martin presented me with images of the antiplate I knew it was perfect. The simplicity and scale of the piece draws attention to the food and at the same time makes it very easy for the guest to pick up the utensil. I am going to hold this image back for a period, we will insert it later.

We have more pieces in development, as they mature I will add them to this thread.

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Chef, I'm somewhat stunned by all of this. A word like "original" doesn't even begin to cover it.

What's great about this is that because form follows function here, in some ways your explanations are unnecessary (although still quite interesting--especially the "story" behind each piece).

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Very interesting and extremely thought provoking. To create serviceware that truly functions with the food as opposed to traditional service pieces that are leftover from the high victorian era. I think a lot of us have generally played with this a little, but to see someones experiments is fun. Are these possible marketable items?

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Heh. This discussion DOES get me wondering if customized "dish washing" equipment has to follow.

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Heh. This discussion DOES get me wondering if customized "dish washing" equipment has to follow.

It looks like most of that stuff can be thrown into something like the top rack of a Miele, although I am not sure if a commercial dishwasher would kill some of that stuff or not. I would guess most of this stuff is going to get delicately hand washed in a sink with soap and water.

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WOW!!!

I'm seeing Rube Goldberg type contraptions to get the food to the diner's mouths next.

Chef - you are Truly Amazing.

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Chef, to what degree do you feel you will need to use more conventional serviceware in conjunction with these new items? Will most/all/some/a few courses utilize the new serviceware? How important is it for you to "cushion" the shock of such newness with some traditional approaches?

I vote for Leonard Nemoy as the celebrity pitchman if they're marketed. :biggrin:

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It looks like most of that stuff can be thrown into something like the top rack of a Miele, although I am not sure if a commercial dishwasher would kill some of that stuff or not. I would guess most of this stuff is going to get delicately hand washed in a sink with soap and water.

Machine-washability is a requirement for all the new pieces we are working on.

The only exception is the Eye, which is a combination of glass and clear acrylic. Due to acrylic's low abrasion resistance and the different expansion rate of the two materials, these have to be hand washed.

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These things are great, though I can't help but imagine some of the mishaps...food going twanging across the table, etcetera.

Where there is food, there is comedy.

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Martin -- had you designed serviceware before this project? If not, what was it about the project that piqued your interest?

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Martin -- had you designed serviceware before this project?  If not, what was it about the project that piqued your interest?

I did work on some serviceware related projects prior to working with Grant. The requirements to stay within the bounds of convention bothered me about those projects because I felt there was room to explore this subject outside the given limits.

I knew that the exploration would require a close cooperation with a person on the other side - a chef who is thinking about the food the way I think about design. I thought Grant might just be that person. In his initial email, he didn't ask for a plate or fork design, he wrote about new ways of serving new food.

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Fantastic! As in fantasy! I'm always on the look out for objects that are not traditional serving pieces, but you've taken it way beyond this. Its a very delicate balance between intrigue, excitement and being too precious. We once ate at the restaurant in the Hempel in London and the serviceware was so 'unique' the wait staff couldn't even pick it up off the table. But it seems as if you've taken the 'art' of eating to a whole new level, as well as having truly thought out the whole process of sight, smell, and taste.

I can't wait to see more!

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This is beyond serviceware -- this has become Modern Art. I'd like to predict that before long (perhaps before service begins), these pieces will be gobbled up by a Modern Art Museum and I still had curator contacts in that industry, I would heartily encourage them to snatch them up for an exhibit asap.

Brilliant, absolutely brilliant.

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It looks like most of that stuff can be thrown into something like the top rack of a Miele, although I am not sure if a commercial dishwasher would kill some of that stuff or not. I would guess most of this stuff is going to get delicately hand washed in a sink with soap and water.

Machine-washability is a requirement for all the new pieces we are working on.

The only exception is the Eye, which is a combination of glass and clear acrylic. Due to acrylic's low abrasion resistance and the different expansion rate of the two materials, these have to be hand washed.

are these all custom pieces, or can someone buy them? If so, I'll take a dozen eyes.

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This is beyond serviceware -- this has become Modern Art. I'd like to predict that before long (perhaps before service begins), these pieces will be gobbled up by a Modern Art Museum and I still had curator contacts in that industry, I would heartily encourage them to snatch them up for an exhibit asap.

Brilliant, absolutely brilliant.

It would actually bother me if the artistic aspect was the primary consideration. But Chef's explanation (and well... frankly just looking at them in context--with food on them) makes it clear that' this isn't the case. They look "good" as a side effect of being both functional and innovative. "Form follows function"--that's a pretty basic design philosophy that "traditional" art types (and I include a lot of modern art people in that) don't always understand. It's the kind of beauty you find on drafting boards, and maybe only incidentally later on in museums.

Oh Martin, by the way, are we slowing down your website yet? :raz:

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Is custom glassware for cocktails and wines also in the planning stages or under consideration?

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Were these pieces designed specifically for use at Alinea? Or were they in use at all at Trio?

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It would actually bother me if the artistic aspect was the primary consideration.  But Chef's explanation (and well... frankly just looking at them in context--with food on them) makes it clear that' this isn't the case.  They look "good" as a side effect of being both functional and innovative.  "Form follows function"--that's a pretty basic design philosophy that "traditional" art types (and I include a lot of modern art people in that) don't always understand.  It's the kind of beauty you find on drafting boards, and maybe only incidentally later on in museums.

Rube Goldberg was mentioned. That is the exact opposite of what we’re trying to do.

What I see as a designer is a set of problems that we’re trying to address, the aesthetic aspect is only one of them. To create a self-serving contraption actually means causing a problem rather than solving one. The goal with every project is to articulate its essence and then look for a solution. Obviously, the result is an object. But it is actually the food that brings it to life and in some cases the service piece is what makes the serving of the food possible. If it is a plate as we know it that serves a given course the best (that means the experience as a whole, not just the food itself), then that is what should be used. The goal isn’t to throw away all we have but to broaden the spectrum.

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I just wanted to add that I find this all very fascinating and applaud both Grant and Martin for their truly unique visions. Like everyone else here I am going to be glued to my computer watching the process unfold.

Best of luck.

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iain, several of those pieces were in use when I was last at trio. I have to confess, we busted up laughing at the spiked pieces, as by that point we were halfway through the wines and neither my mother or I thought it was safe for us to be trying to eat off of thin, piercing wire.

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iain, several of those pieces were in use when I was last at trio.  I have to confess, we busted up laughing at the spiked pieces, as by that point we were halfway through the wines and neither my mother or I thought it was safe for us to be trying to eat off of thin, piercing wire.

With all due respect, I am just geared to comedy and I can't help it. I would pay money to see out-takes on "Candid Camera" to see how people tried to negotiate this level of The Art of Food. My imagination keeps coming back to this. I have read the comments elsethread (in other Alinea threads) about humor being in place.

This speaks to my most primal fear about Fine Dining, which is that it will be like a hushed gallery where no exuberance (and God forbid, laughing out loud) is allowed. "Allowed" is the wrong word.

What happens in places like Trio or French Laundry when a comic bit takes place? You all know what I mean...something goes flying off the fork (thin-wired apparatus, lollipop, etc.). Does a wide-receiving waiter go out to catch? Do people laugh, genially? Is it social suicide?

Well, hopefully not that, but, well, Grant, can you address this for me? I'm not trying to be a smart-ass. I just don't want to go somewhere where implements might intimidate. I negotiated the escargot apparatus just fine. How does your serviceware compare in difficulty?

And I guess this is a two-part question. How do you gauge the ambient noise? How do you set the baffles and chambers to absorb (as opposed to, say, TGIF, who puts in tin ceiling tiles to amplify every single sound in the joint, so it sounds loud and populated and "friendly")? How do you describe the noise level? "Ambient Hollywood restaurant: murmuring with occasional tinkle of glassware and slight audible laughter"? How does one script that?

Where there is food, there is comedy, and restaurants are theater.

Should I post my noise question in the general thread? It seems all of a piece to me, but I'm willing to be sub-divided if need be.

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Martin, a warm welcome to eGullet.

And to Martin and Grant, thanks for the start of a thought-provoking conversation.

Here is a link to Robert Brown's photo-essay on the "taller" (= studio, atelier) of Ferran Adrià, with some examples of the el Bulli group's tableware. The comparisons are interesting.

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Martin, a warm welcome to eGullet. 

And to Martin and Grant, thanks for the start of a thought-provoking conversation.

Here is a link to Robert Brown's photo-essay on the "taller" (= studio, atelier) of Ferran Adrià, with some examples of the el Bulli group's tableware.  The comparisons are interesting.

I was waiting for the Adria reference. Where is Jinmyo?

Anyway, I like to watch.

Thanks for the unprecedented coverage of Alinea. I've never been to Chicago (or Roses, or anywhere in Spain, for that matter), but I am a huge fan of experiment and innovation, especially when it is geared to provide a unique and unforgettable culinary experience for the diner.

Thanks to chefg and everyone involved for documenting this development on eGullet. I will be watching with great interest.

Squeat Mungry

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Thanks so much for showing us these lovely contraptions.

Although the designs are so perfectly simple, the complexity of though behind them is fascinating. I love the way they transport food to become sculptural, monumental, kinetic. The bow is my favorite.

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Martin, a warm welcome to eGullet. 

And to Martin and Grant, thanks for the start of a thought-provoking conversation.

Here is a link to Robert Brown's photo-essay on the "taller" (= studio, atelier) of Ferran Adrià, with some examples of the el Bulli group's tableware.  The comparisons are interesting.

Jonathan:

Thank you, it's good to be here. However, aside from the glass bowls made famous from the NT Times Mag cover holding the carrot air, I did not see any visual simularities to our pieces...unless that was your point.

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