Beyond the Knife and Fork

SLIDESHOW: Martin Kastner: “When you create a tool, you think of it as a tool with a specific use. But when it gets into the hands of a chef they see it through a different lens.”

Martin Kastner is a Czech blacksmith-turned-award-winning tableware designer who wants to bring eating utensils into the 21st century.

Consider the humble trinity of knife, fork and spoon. They have barely changed since Byzantine times, but in the West they are still more widely used than smartphones.

You could argue this is because cutlery does a good job. But the world’s top designers and chefs reckon it is time to bring eating utensils into the 21st century.

At the forefront of this movement is Martin Kastner, a blacksmith-turned-award-winning tableware designer who runs a design studio called Crucial Detail. He started out working in a 16th century castle in his native Czech Republic where his job was restoring historical metalworks. He founded Crucial Detail in 1998 shortly after his arrival in the US. He is best known for his Alinea serviceware concepts, which landed him on The Future Laboratory’s list of 100 most influential individuals in contemporary design. Kastner received the 2014 IHA Global Innovation Award for Best Product Design and is the designer behind the Team USA platter. He designed the tools for the prestigious Bocuse d’Or competition, helping Team USA win a historic gold this year.

Here he discusses his work.

Billionaire: How did your background feed into what you do?
Martin Kastner: I grew up in the Czech Republic restoring objects that had existed for hundreds of years. You couldn’t hack things up and weld them back together, you have to use the tools of the trade of the time. While it was an interesting experience, I wanted to look for means of expression that would be more my own. I went on to study contemporary uses for traditional crafts such as weaving, glassblowing, followed by conceptual art and metal sculpture. I was always transfixed by this notion of boundaries, limits, and sensory perception. When we moved to the US, my wife got a job in a bakery, and that’s when I became interested in food as an expressive medium. In an academic sense, I wanted to explore the synergy between design and food.

Why did you decide to create Crucial Detail?
I started Crucial Detail out of desperation. As a blacksmith with a degree in Fine Arts, I was effectively unemployable when I arrived in the US. But I was able to offer design services despite the fact that I did not train as an industrial designer. Design sits at an intersection of my areas of interest which are making, conceptual approach to objects, and sensory perception. One day, I was approached by a chef (Grant Achatz before his Alinea fame) who said he was looking for new ways to serve food. He said to me: “In the kitchen, so much has changed in the last 20 years. We use all these new techniques, materials, equipment, and food, but in service, we’re stuck 200 years ago. We have problems delivering food, it doesn’t feel on par with our goal of what the experience should be.” So I asked him to give me an example of a problem that the old tools don’t address well in today’s context. He wanted to serve a flavoured sphere of ice, but when he put it on a plate it slid around; if he put it in a glass it wasn’t particularly appealing and it started to melt. So my solution was to embed three pieces of wire that swivel, so the guests can pick it up, it collapses into a lollipop stick and then they can consume it. The response was overwhelmingly positive and marked the beginning of our collaboration on changing various aspects of the dining experience over the following decade.

What other food tool problems have you addressed?
When you get a skewer with grilled meat, you usually get a knife and fork to remove the meat. Then the meat goes flying across the table. So we created a self-supporting skewer that holds the food upright and allows the guest to swivel the food and put it straight into their mouth. You can see the food at eye-level, which makes you think about completely different mechanics of eating. As the chef, you can control the way the food interacts with the mouth cavity; what flavours hit the side of the tongue; the soft palate; the back of the tongue; and so on.

Another time, we wanted to design a vessel that would allow a cocktail bar to infuse ingredients for a drink tableside; so the guests could experience the transformation of the drink from start to finish. The product I created was inspired by a submarine porthole that I saw in a movie of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea; a double-paned window into another world. I call it the Porthole. As soon as this piece went into service people started calling and asking if they could buy it so we developed a version that could be produced on a slightly larger scale and launched a very successful Kickstarter campaign. Now it is a product with a life of its own.

How can tools change the way we eat?
Tools can give the chef greater control over the eating experience. For example, traditionally when you’re eating at a four-star restaurant the table is the mediating surface where everything happens. You’re a passive observer until the server puts the food down in front of you, and then you eat at your leisure. But we had a time-sensitive dish, so we decided to shake it up by creating a bowl without a foot so you couldn’t put it down; so the diner had to consume the food immediately.

When you create a tool, you think of it as a tool with a specific use. But when it gets into the hands of a chef they see it through a different lens. Ultimately, we’re enablers, we’re expanding the toolbox of whoever is providing the experience for the end user.

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