Turning the Tables

At Chicago’s new restaurant Alinea, the food and tableware transform the dining experience.

Chef Grant Achatz—who cut his teeth at Napa Valley’s French Laundry, Chicago’s Charlie Trotter’s, and Evanston’s Trio—is among a handful of contemporary chefs breaking accepted norms of gastronomy to create new ways of interacting with food. In the tradition of Spanish chef/innovator Ferran Adrià—who develops his menus in a laboratory, turning sauces into foams and wines into aerosol sprays—Achatz’s restaurant Alinea, which opened this May in Chicago, challenges the conventions of cuisine, including the way it is presented.

When he began developing Alinea’s haute tasting menu, Achatz felt that traditional tableware would be an injustice to his high-concept food. “There are instances when using a fork and knife simply don’t work from an aesthetic and a functional standpoint,” Achatz says. “It’s a bad solution for the food we’re creating.” So he commissioned San Diego-based Martin Kastner, founder of the studio Crucial Detail, to create a portfolio of some 30 sculptural designs—made of stainless steel, porcelain, linen, and live plants—that double as dishware. Created specifically for Achatz’s one- to six-bite courses, Kastner’s designs change the very mechanics of eating.

“We’re not just making a prettier plate or fork or spoon,” Kastner says, “but attacking the very concept of each. We’re looking at how traditional service can be challenged.” Tripod, for example, stands open on three stainless-steel “legs.” Grabbing and collapsing them, diners eat Achatz’s frozen ball of hibiscus tea like a Popsicle.

Achatz views the table as the stage on which the drama of his dining experience unfolds. “When you’re sitting down to a four-hour dinner,” he says, “your eye is centered on the table, just as you’re drawn to the curtain when you sit down at a theater.” In the case of Kastner’s Sectional Plates—six porcelain platforms on which stuffed hearts of palm sections are served—the waitstaff assembles the interlocking pieces as diners watch.

Like many of Kastner’s designs, the Sectional Plates eliminate the need for utensils. Each platform can be brought to the mouth as if it were an individual spoon. “Think about how you’re going to eat three times a day every day for the rest of your life,” Achatz says. “You’re going to use a knife, fork, and plate. If we create pieces that change the way you move the food to your mouth, it’s a much richer experience.” The concept fits snugly within the restaurant’s brand identity: alinea is the word for the typographical paragraph symbol that signifies the beginning of a new train of thought.

The Antenna—a 16-inch-tall upright skewer—places a single-bite course of smoked salmon at mouth level. Diners need only lean forward and bite. The requisite, Achatz is well aware, runs the risk of making his more refined clientele uncomfortable. “We want the experience at Alinea to trigger emotions—even if that emotion is intimidation,” he says. “Intimidation makes your heart beat, and it makes you take notice of the moment. How many times in the course of your day do you do things that are so monotonous that you don’t even know you’re doing them? We want people to realize they’re alive. Sometimes it’s good to be taken aback.”

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