When we first came across the work of Ryan Fletcher, I thought, “Yeah, another person trying to put sculptural concerns before functional concerns without actually talking to a chef or anyone who works in food service.” (I have many years of experience in food service, so it’s a sore spot for me.) But I was wrong. A little digging showed me that his entire Tapas Micros project was based upon his discussions with chef Carmen Cabia in Kansas City. After that, the editorial staff came up with our own questions about the project, in the hopes of learning how others might also explore these kinds of projects. – Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.
Ceramics Monthly: Were there specific dishes that inspired or led to a successful design?
Ryan Fletcher: Not really, the basic idea was that the food was small so I made small shapes that had a relatively small serving area to accommodate that. The first and most obvious idea was to make a Paella serving dish. These are made to serve several people at once. Chef Carmen doesn’t use these however, and I wasn’t particularly interested in making any large items for serving groups. Instead I made several small pieces.
The thing that was most inspiring was thinking about high-end restaurant chefs and how they prepare food. One thing I noticed about all the chefs I worked with is that they, for the most part, have incredible control over the consistency of their food. Texture is considered greatly when preparing a dish. The sauces were made with care.I found not every piece of ceramic needs severe indentations, or high rims, or large open surfaces. These chefs weren’t making heavy pasta dishes with runny sauces that filled the plate. The reductions were thickened precisely, sauces stayed where they were put. The food was very intentional. Essentially, all I was doing was creating sculptural pedestals for the food in the hopes that the pedestal would somehow inspire the formal aspects of the Chef’s creation.
CM: How did customers in various restaurants or settings react to Tapas Micros?
RF: The restaurant customers I encountered were very happy at the events. There were lots of questions about the use of specific objects and, because all the events I did were actually experiments in function, I was reluctant to give any answers. What I really wanted to know was if the people used the objects, how they used them, and what their reaction was to it. I wanted to know if my idea of how they would be used was translated through the design. When a product is designed well it doesn’t need an explanation. There are a few designs that are closer to most people’s idea of what a spoon is and those were used used meaning handled, or picked up. Other pieces were thought of more as decoration or pedestals and simply left on the plate. I don’t think I wanted everyone to pick up all the pieces, and I don’t think all the designs were successful, but it was an experiment. As for customer’s reactions, it’s hard to judge specifically other than just saying â€˜they liked Tapas Micros a lot,’ everyone had a great time. No one was angry or mad at me, which is good.
CM: Did people respond differently in a gallery as opposed to at a table?
RF: The porcelain has now been sent to several galleries and set up in various ways. When the pieces are not in use, I show them in a way that accentuates their sculptural, repetitive qualities. I can’t speak for the people who saw my work, but I do feel like they have an inherent sculptural quality to them as they exist on their own. I think people responded positively to that. Overall, the fun for me is working with real chefs in restaurants and getting to see their food plated on my dishes and people eating, drinking, and being happy.
To answer the question another way, what was fun was how the chefs and I responded differently to working in a gallery as opposed to a restaurant. In restaurants there is a lot of pressure to make food that will be generally acceptable to a large audience. However, in an art gallery anything goes. Tapas Micros appeared in several events in art galleries where they were actually used to serve food. One, in particular, we called “Comfort Food.” It was a collaboration with the original Chef, where Carmen and I decided we would “cater” the event as a performance piece. We served three tapas:Hojaldre de Lingua (a puff pastry with beef tongue), Esalada Tibia de Estomago (a cold salad of celery, carrot, onion and beef tripe) and Corazon con Tomate (Seared beef heart simmered and served in a Mediterranean tomato sauce). The idea was that we would let people use there eyes to eat, using my dishes as the medium to “beautify” food that, one would think, most people would turn their nose up to. The reaction to this was interesting to me. I went into the project thinking people would be generally turned off by the food. Yet, we prepared food for 250 people and it was gone in the first hour of the opening. There were menus printed and all the ingredients were clearly listed. This told me that the presentation of the food was just as important as the preparation.
CM: What did you observe about how the dishes were used, and what did you learn from those observations?
RF: The applications for the different designs varied greatly from Chef to Chef. All the pieces were made to be versatile. This is why I never made a “risotto plate,” for instance. The servers and dishwashers did their normal work but seemed a little afraid sometimes. Part of their job is not breaking things and I think the irregularity of the objects created a bit of anxiety in a few of them. Most of the pieces are designed to be picked up, but the patrons were typically apprehensive about touching them.
As a designer, I am still learning a lot with every project. Almost every Chef commented on the fact that none of my dishes were stackable. I never considered this because of the relatively small size of the pieces. One could fit about 35 pieces into a small Tupperware container. Another aspect is that Tapas Micros was created specifically for high-end restaurant service and caterings. I believe there is a very important trend on the rise which is adamantly opposed to this. “Slow-Food” as I’ve heard it called is a movement where Chefs use only home-grown ingredients in their dishes. This way everything is seasonal, everything is fresh. A few restaurants in my area in particular have their own gardens, and if not are buying from local growers. The ecological impact of the restaurant industry could be greatly impacted by this if it catches on. On my end, the next step is how to cater to this new trend and see how Tapas Micros would change if considering these new guidelines. Maybe “Eco-Micros” is the next new thing for me.