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Ryan Fletcher’s Tapas Micros Project

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. Below is the complete interview, and you also can read his description of the project at the end of this post.—Sherman Hall, 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 forms are based on the idea of the “Micro Menu” or “Tasting Menu” certain chefs use to show off their abilities. anywhere from 4 to 14 or more courses are served to patrons one at the time during wine dinners and special restaurant events.

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 ‘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…

CM: What kind of testing did you have to perform to ensure that the pieces would stand up to the heavy wear and tear of restaurant use?

RF: The testing was done in actual use. The kitchen at Lill’s on 17th – the restaurant where the project began – is very small and everything is hand-washed. This poses a problem because the handling and stacking of dishes, even in water filled sinks is the reason for most of the chipping and breakage of my work as well as the store bought stuff. At the event in Celina Tio’s “Julian” they were washed in an industrial sanitizer, which minimized contact. Nothing broke at all there. I go into all the events with the understanding that, inevitably, there will be broken pieces. I also noticed that most people are more careful with dishes when you say you made them. This helps. I think we average about one broken piece per event, which isn’t bad.

CM: What questions did you ask the chef you were working with regarding her preferences for shapes, surfaces, ets?

RF: As for specific questions, I couldn’t tell you. It was more like a continual conversation over the course of the project. I began the project by carving prototypes in plaster and bringing them to her to see if she could imagine serving food on them. The questions I asked her were about the kinds of things she had seen in the various restaurants in Spain she had worked in. When I asked her about surfaces she told me, “Only white or black, and only glossy.” She explained that colors compete with the food. Good chefs use a variety of contrasting and complimentary color in the food they prepare. She did guide me in looking at restaurants she thought were making very progressive food. These restaurants, most times, will show pictures of what their food looks like and how it’s presented. This usually includes dinnerware. I also did lots of research looking in high-end restaurant product catalogues to figure out an angle for my project. What I found was that most manufactured plates and bowls are made to literally frame the food. The gallery or rim of a plates and bowls are a perfect example of this. At that point I figured out what my direction would be. Instead of framing the food, I would either elevate it, by making a pedestal for it, or add dimensionality to it by linking it to another form. I did ask her what were some of the strangest things she saw food served on. She told me in Spain there is a dish called Calcots that are cooked and served in U-shaped Spanish roof tiles. Calcots are a seasonal delicacy. The closest thing we have in the U.S. are spring onions. They are wrapped in newspaper, placed in the roof tiles, and directly on an open fire or hot coals to steam. They are then served in the tiles, which preserve heat and keep them warm. A more non-traditional trend she told me about was the use of flat pieces of slate rock and plate glass for serving food. I used the idea of serving on a stone-like shape after helping the Polish artist Marek Cecula work on his Natura product line for his company Modus Design back in 2009. I was making molds of rocks we had found that he later turned into salt and pepper shakers and teapots. My rocks were made of pink insulation foam I cut on a band saw.

CM: Did you serve the food on your own dishes to the clientele? If so, what was that experience like, and did the customers know you made them aside from the first dinner?

RF: I never did the actual serving. We left that up to the restaurant staff. The customers only knew that I made the dishes if they asked. I would walk out of the kitchen for a few brief minutes and talk to people as they ate, but I mostly enjoyed just sitting back and watching people use them. I really wanted to exist as a part of the normal restaurant experience so we tried to leave things “business as usual.” It might sound strange, but I actually wanted my work to blend in to the restaurant. It gave me a weird sense of assurance that I had accomplished my goals making my work mesh with the whole scene.

I was, however, a dishwasher at several events. This was actually a great experience. I have a few pictures of my work in the industrial sinks, going through the sanitizing machines and piled up on drying racks. A few times I was involved in plating the food. Plating is my favorite job in the restaurant. I love the idea of making food more appetizing by turning it into a piece of art someone is going to eat later. This is the reason why I made Tapas Micros. I really just wanted to be on the plate with the Chef.


Tapas Micros

by Ryan Fletcher

Tapas Micros started out as what would be my BFA project at KCAI. I had just gotten a much awaited job at Lill’s on 17th restaurant, a small Spanish Bistro in a converted house on the Westside of Kansas City, Missouri. I had known the Chef Carmen Cabia previously from visiting my girlfriend (the souse chef) at the restaurant. Carmen was raised in Blanes, Spain and trained as a Chef in Barcelona. Her mother was a Chef and her mother’s mother was a Chef for Spanish royalty. Carmen’s cooking style is Spanish home cooking presented in minimal and elegant ways in the form of entrees and Tapas, or small plates of food served like what we think of as appetizers. I noticed a very important thing to her was the way her food was presented. Creative presentation has been a trend in the restaurant industry for some time now. Chefs in high-end restaurants make presentations so beautiful, they rival modern sculpture. I had fallen in love with these ideas long ago. I had always made ceramics for food but had yet to find a “new” way to make this work.

The summer before my final semester at KCAI I asked the Chef if she would like to do a project together based on her specific cooking and plating style. She thought it was a great idea and suggested that we use the restaurant for a special dinner for my final presentation. She gave me the names of some chefs and restaurants to research on the internet. I watched every episode of Anthony Bourdain, and Andrew Zimmern on Netflix. I was particularly interested in places like El Bulli in Spain with chefs Ferran and Albert Adria, and Jose Andres and Alinea in Chicago. El Bulli is literally culinary laboratory. The style Chef Ferran Adria coined was the “deconstruction” of traditional food. I found in this food style similarities to abstract art. They take slide photos of every dish they send out and they are now available on the El Bulli website. It’s an interesting thing to see. I went through all of them and noticed very few if any of the presentations even used ceramics, there are almost none in any of the photos. They did use things like rocks, plate glass, and slate tiles. I began to feel like I understood why. The food was so progressive that nothing existed to accompany the food to the same degree. Alinea, on the other hand, hired a product designer to create specialty ceramics and other, more eccentric, products to display their food creations.

I began forming my guidelines. The ceramics needed to be as progressive as the food. I wanted to be noticed on the plate along side the Chef, but it couldn’t be overpowering as to compete with what was as important as the displays – or “pedestals” as I ended up calling some of them. I realized later that I was creating pedestals for the food presentations I loved so much. I wanted them to be appealing to Chefs most of all. Tapas Micros is a product line as much as it is a ceramic installation. I ultimately want some chef to buy all 300 pieces and use them every day in their restaurant. I tend to be most concerned with the context in which my work exists. Galleries are pretty boring and this work looks pretty boring in a gallery. Without the food, the chefs, the servers, the bus tubs, Tapas Micros are just empty plates. I started thinking about when artists show pots in galleries how they have to be more than pots to exist on their own. And when they are purchased a lot of times, they exist without function. They ultimately become decorative objects. I found this project as a solution to what I saw of that idea as a “problem.” the restaurant became the gallery for this body of work.

Then, I began carving some simple shapes in plaster and bringing them to her at the restaurant to see what she thought of them. I asked her all sorts of questions about why she chose the plates she was using and what kinds of surfaces she wanted to serve on. The plates at Lill’s are pretty standard white rectangles, long and skinny to fit on the small tables in the tiny restaurant. I ended up designing all the pieces to sit directly on top of those plates instead of designing bases for all of them. I had to add zirconium to my clay body so it would match the industrial stuff. Most of the designs she approved of. The chef said only white and glossy surfaces. I actually brought her some unglazed pieces polished by wet sanding with high grit sandpaper. The chef was worried about the pieces staining but the porcelain I was using apparently vitrified enough so that this wasn’t an issue. They were also washed immediately after use, which helped I’m sure. I used this information and research to create the 12 designs. I spent most of the semester producing the necessary quantities: 25 of each, 50 of each for sets of two. This left me with over 300 pieces of ceramics at the end of the semester.

We then worked out a date with the chef and owner for the dinner. The Chef came up with the menu and prepared an 8 course tasting menu. We advertised a little but mostly just invited my professors and their spouses. A few of my friends came to show their support. We ended up serving to around 20 people that night. We also used them for the New Years Eve dinner – a 16 top in the private dining room upstairs at Lill’s. After that we used them at a catering the Chef had which happened to be at an art gallery called Grand Arts here in town. The dishes worked well for catering. The Chef used the repeating shapes to make these sculptural displays on the trays that the servers would take out to people in the gallery. I was interested in contacting more Chefs in my area to see what they thought about them. Kansas City is a great place for something like that. We have three or four Chefs that live here in the city that have recently been judges and/or contestants on various Food Network shows. I contacted Celina Tio (and others but she was the only one that got back to me). We did a little wine dinner at her place called Julian using my stuff for the apps. Her trays were really nice, the displays were nice and minimal and her restaurant is bigger and more open with an open kitchen which made for better photography. I have also been working with a local caterer and friend named Heather Hands. She caters art events as well. I think it’s nice when my work is existing in the same place as other art but in a completely different way. And finally, my latest contact is a person named Tony Glamcevski who owns “Green Dirt Farms” just outside of the city. He raises goats, sheep and cows to make his own cheese. He brings in chefs and works with other local growers and Chefs and has dinners at his farm. He is existing within this new “slow food” movement that’s happening. I am interested to see if my work would change within this new context.

To learn more about Ryan Fletcher and what he’s up to, see www.ryanfletcherdesign.com.

This article is featured in Ceramics Monthly magazine’s September 2011 issue.
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