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Photos by Eugene Galdones

This Is Fine Art You Can Eat

How Crucial Detail’s Martin Kastner and Alinea’s Grant Achatz are reshaping the way we eat and drink.

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Imagine sitting down to dinner and finding a lavender ice sphere on your plate. Well, technically, not on a plate — balancing on a four-inch tripod, not unlike what you’d find in a (albeit tiny) camera setup. Pick it up and collapse the legs together, and you’ve got more of a Popsicle-esque lollipop, the perfect palate cleanser in between courses.

That was the very first collaborative design between chef Grant Achatz, then at Trio, and designer Martin Kastner, who would come to define the artistic style and innovation of the restaurant that would soon be called Alinea. The Chicago culinary destination quickly gained international attention for taking the white tablecloth fine-dining experience and turning it on its head — thanks, in part, to the show-stopping service ware produced by Kastner and conceived of by the craftsman-chef duo. While the restaurant world was deeply entrenched in the age of California cuisine — rustic, organic ingredients prepared to let nature shine through — Achatz and Kastner made food fun again.

Martin Kastner
Courtesy of Crucial Detail

Kastner, the founder of design shop Crucial Detail, has been drawn to metalworking ever since he was a teenager. “As a 12-year-old boy, heating things up in a fire and hitting them with a hammer sounded great,” he remembers with a laugh. The Czech Republic native spent his early adulthood honing his skills — even working to restore medieval castles — and continued his education in a handful of natural materials techniques and mediums, from weaving and papermaking to carving and conceptual art. After moving to Columbus, Ohio, with his wife Lara, that list would soon grow to include another curiosity: food.

“Lara was working at a French bakery and would call me at 4 a.m. to help her mix dough and roll out baguettes,” he recalls. “I started thinking about food as an expressive medium and how there’s nothing else like it — it’s tangible, but you’re also employing scent, texture, and flavor.” Even though Kastner had more than a dozen years of expertise in his own craft, food, he felt, was a totally different ballgame. “It’s a skill set that people improve over a lifetime of practice — I was too intimidated to pursue any kind of food presentation projects on my own,” he says.

Luckily for him, he didn’t have to.

Left: the Bow; right: the Antiplate. Both are available for purchase in the Alinea collection.

In the summer of 2003, Kastner received an email from a Chicago chef named Grant Achatz. “He said that he was opening a restaurant and looking for somebody to help him design new ways of serving food — which was super exciting for me because I had so much interest in the experiential dimension of eating,” says Kastner. The two started a conversation about the holistic nature of dining, and each artist contributed their own perspectives. “I was bringing a conceptual arts point of view, while Grant was concerned with presenting dishes in ways that wouldn’t compromise the food’s properties, but would also be in line with what you expect of a four-star restaurant experience,” he says. Achatz, in his biography Life, on the Line, wrote of Kastner, “Martin’s response was cautious, deliberate, and inquisitive, completely in line with what I was to learn was his analytical personality. He was very interested in identifying the problems we faced in the current service lineup available to chefs, and to determine whether there were ways to find better solutions.”

Achatz emailed 43 designers that day; Kastner was the only one to respond.

The two went through about seven iterations of the Tripod in those very first emails back and forth. “Grant wanted to deliver a small frozen sphere of ice as a palate cleanser that would basically be like a lollipop — but still be presented in a way that felt fresh and intuitive for people to interact with,” says Kastner. So they froze a ball of ice atop three wire prongs, which collapsed together when guests went to pick it up — thus perfectly accomplishing the modern-day lollipop prototype. “Even though Martin and I had never met in person,” Achatz wrote, “I could tell from these early designs that this was the start of something very exciting. The thought of having original service pieces to complement the food made me downright giddy.”

Many more sketchbook-required designs would follow, from an antenna-like skewer that suspended salmon bites at an eater’s eye level to a wax bowl that held chilled potato soup to a bacon wire — that’s right, bacon balancing on a tiny tightwire. If bacon can be suspended in midair, what else could Kastner and Achatz achieve?

Making the Bunker Pants cocktail at the Aviary.

It was only natural, then, that Kastner and Achatz continued to create together for the opening of the Aviary, a restaurant-meets-bar destination in Chicago’s West Loop that will be touching down with a second location in New York this fall.

“We started to ask ourselves how we could translate this way of thinking into the cocktail world, and there were shifts we had to recognize,” says Kastner. They faced new challenges to their vision, like an a la carte menu and altered perspectives. Still, his collaboration with the team reaches nearly every corner of the high-concept bar, from unsung kitchen heroes like specialty ice molds and freezing racks to one tableside spectacle in particular: The Porthole.

“The bar wanted to have a tea-based cocktail that evolved in front of guests, and for me, it felt like that meant it needed a window so you could see the transformation of the drink,” says Kastner. He worked with the team to create a double-paned infusion vessel out of tempered glass and stainless steel. It almost looks like a submarine window into the infusion that’s happening inside: Add your ingredients to a liquid and watch the magic unfold.

The Porthole was so popular at the Aviary that guests would steal them from the restaurant. So Kastner created a Kickstarter in order to produce the Porthole for consumers to buy and use at home. The Kickstarter goal? $28,500. The final amount raised? $736,112 — almost 26 times as much as he was looking for. Now Achatz-wannabes can buy the Porthole, the Antenna, and more of Kastner’s Alinea designs for as little as $15. (Because who doesn’t want a pair of Alinea tongs on their kitchen table?)

The Porthole was the result from just one of the challenges Kastner has tackled during his 14-year relationship with Grant and the restaurant group — a cohort he’d much rather call a collaborator than a client. “They bring experience, they bring perspective, and they bring their thoughts that have evolved over a period of time in working in the arenas that they do,” says Kastner. “It’s hardly a passive relationship; everyone is actively involved, and it’s about learning to listen, finding a common language, and working in that space that we’ve found we now share.”

For Kastner — who has been creating and designing since the ‘80s — the idea of collaboration, when it comes to creativity, is a no-brainer.

“As a designer, I’m sitting here in my little world and only seeing the outside world from my vantage point, but to actually address or solve problems that are relevant to a broader spectrum of people, I need to understand their perspective and they need to understand the perspective of the people that might be creating that experience for them,” he says. “We’re past the point of individuals being able to do things on their own. The increasing complexity of the world we live in means this: That collaboration is more and more important.”

Writer: Nicole Schnitzler

Creative Director: Cristina Cerullo

Senior Editor: Marcy Franklin

Design Director: Josh Laincz


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