I’m sitting in a bar, and I’ve just had the best Old Fashioned of my life. It was also the most unusual. The “drink” arrived in a glass, but inside that glass was a perfect sphere of ice. The server cracked the sphere with a makeshift slingshot, and out leaked the most balanced concoction of spirits you could imagine, cooled by its own container.
But I was jealous of my friend. His order came in this elegant, flat glass vase that was held together by a mere band of metal. Inside, a bouquet of blooming aromatics infused his liquor. And over the course of 20 or so minutes, I watched his drink steep from tan to a deep cranberry, the concoction ever-changing in smooth yet unpredictable ways. It was a really wonderful night, a giggly, warm-faced slow burn of conversation–it was every good reason that you can drink alcohol, wrapped in aesthetic delight.
You can’t usually replicate this experience outside of The Aviary (which is part of the avant garde Grant Achatz restaurant group including Alinea and Next), not just because you can’t replicate the cooking, but because you can’t replicate the diningware. That flat vase was made by Martin Kastner, the one man band behind Crucial Detail, which has created collaborative, custom dining pieces for Chef Achatz since the start of his solo career.
Now, that vase, called The Porthole, has reached Kickstarter. So rather than stealing one of these meticulously handmade infusers–as some Aviary drinkers have been known to attempt–Kastner will sell you one. It’s crafted with less handmade romance, but far more injection-molded accuracy, for a bit under $100. There’s a logical reason for the Porthole’s shape. Beyond its curves and asymmetrical elegance, it’s simply a flattened bottle, maximizing the surface area for your eyes to appreciate the colorful flowers and herbs infusing its liquid. But Kastner is quick to admit that despite his early, runaway success on Kickstarter, he didn’t expect anyone to care.
“It wasn’t really designed to be a consumer product,” Kastner admits to me. “Of all the pieces, some just get great response, some don’t.” To my BS detector, his comment doesn’t sound like false modesty. Kastner recognizes that he’s a successful designer, but he’s never made his designs to fit more than one circumstance. So as we talked about his career for well over an hour, I was reminded more of a reluctant artist, unsure of how to interpret commercial success than some corporate-glowing idealist who believes there’s a designed solution awaiting every problem. “I’m a blacksmith by trade,” Kastner tells me. “I studied natural materials design, using weaving, ceramics, and then I studied metal sculpture. But there’s no way to support us [blacksmiths].”
This urge to work with his hands led Kastner down a strange career path. In his younger years, he worked at a castle in the Czech Republic. Among his responsibilities were feeding the castle’s bears and peacock–a task he accepted in exchange for free accommodations–while his day job was crafting lost keys for ancient locks. “When you figure out a medieval lock, you aren’t allowed to open it up,” he explains. “It’s like a puzzle. It’s sometimes fun, sometimes frustrating.”
Eventually, love drew Kastner to America, where he opened his design studio Crucial Detail. Slowly, he started building a business through connections with fabricators, who might tap Kastner to craft a spiral staircase that was too intricate for their day-to-day welders. The business “started adding up,” but then Kastner got an email that would redirect his career.
“Grant [Achatz] was at Trio, when I got an email from him saying he was looking for a guy to design new ways of serving foods,” Kastner tells. “There was nothing specific about it. When I got this email, I was just really intrigued by its openness. I just asked him, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘We have all these ideas about what we’d like to do culinarily that we can make in the kitchen, we just don’t know how to deliver them to the table.’”
Today, Grant Achatz is one of the most famous chefs on the planet. Now he’s known for serving black truffles that burst like Gushers in your mouth, or handing you a cigar full of bubble-gum tapioca for dessert. But this was almost 10 years ago, when Achatz was trying to redefine cuisine from a suburb of Chicago. The email had to be strange, to say the least, but the topic had long been intriguing to Kastner.
“Cuisine has this charge, so much weight attached to it. It’s nutrition. It’s food. Everyone has an emotional response,” he says. “I’d kinda wanted to somehow apply it in my work, but it’s this whole other skillset, and I’d just spent 12 to 15 years working with metals and art. I couldn’t just start playing.”
In their first collaboration, Achatz needed a way to serve a frozen hibiscus tea lollipop to diners. “He originally asked for a lollipop stand, but I felt it was unnecessary. We could modify the lollipop itself.” Instead, Kastner made a tripod out of three bent stainless steel wires, connected by a silicone sleeve. The food itself holds the structure upright until the diner grabs it, and the structure collapses appropriately.
The two continued collaborating, and when Chef Achatz opened Alinea, the restaurant tapped Kastner to design some custom tableware. “He said he was opening a restaurant. I said, ‘Great, I’ll design everything!’ Let me know where I can move in!’” That dream didn’t come true–though Alinea designed wholly by Kastner would be a sight to see–but he did craft a central sculpture, create a menu like no other, and create all sorts of handheld tableware that maybe only an ex-castle blacksmith could make.
I didn’t know what they were serving. That’s why I came up with the menu as a graph.
His cork-holder is a perfect example of his meticulous, handmade craftsmanship. For all intents and purposes, it’s a small brick with wires on top (really, the photos do its heft no justice). But it solves an age-old problem. “Most people who buy a nice bottle of wine want to look at the cork, but if you put it on a plate it’s very odd. And if you use a chain, you damage the cork,” he explains. “So I just designed this as a way of elevating the cork and allowing it to be passed around. And if people have had half a bottle of wine, even if they don’t set it perfectly, it will still stand up straight.”
His even bigger contribution, however, had nothing to do with metal or ceramics. It was to create Alinea’s infographic-esque menu. Like any dozen-course modernist cuisine fine dining experience, words on a menu barely describe the experience the diner is about to have. Just consider how chocolate can be sweet, fruity, bitter, or spicy–then consider something that’s freeze dried, subliminized, and deconstructed. Modernist cuisine may be about intellectually challenging the expectations of the diner, but Kastner thought that the menus of yore still didn’t properly prepare someone for the dinner to come.
“The way I designed their menu was about literacy. A menu being a list of ingredients is impotence,” he says. “I didn’t know what they were serving. That’s why I came up with the menu as a graph.” So the word-list menu comes with a side of bubbles. These bubbles define portion size by their size, and the savory vs. sweet characteristics of a dish by how far left vs. right they sit.
The Alinea work redirected Kastner’s career, and now he spends most of his time creating commissions for dining establishments. (At the time of our call, he’d been working on something new for a Wolfgang Puck location.) I was curious, however, how Kastner was able to go from blacksmithing to natural materials design to working on menus and even websites. “I try to reduce every project to a single sentence, get rid of everything extra,” he explains. “A client might say, ‘I want a centerpiece for the restaurant.’ I have to find what they’re really looking for. It doesn’t make sense to just design a centerpiece. That’s not an interactive experience. When you have a conversation, you can get to the point of what they’re trying to do. Maybe the problem is then ‘How do you share veggies of this size on the table?’ or ‘How do you experience hot or cold at the same time?’ Once you simplify the problem to a simple question, then you can answer it in simple terms.”
It’s these conversations that have led to some of Kastner’s best work, like replacing the sticky shaved ice that sits under shellfish with a flowing, frozen cast glass plate for the sashimi presentation at fellow Chicago restaurant L2O. Even still, though, these conversations are just that–dialogues between two parties to address extremely specific, high-dining issues. It’s design-centric problem solving, sure, but the problems are so darned esoteric that the fact that The Porthole can raise $100,000 from the general Kickstarter populace amazes him (and me). “I never thought any of this would sell outside the limited editions we’ve done for Trio or Alinea,” he admits. “Once it exists, the tool, that’s what it is–for the chef or somebody else–if they find an application for it, great. I was really shocked when I first started seeing uses for the pieces.”