NPR logo At This Experimental Culinary Event, The Cutlery Is High Art

For Foodies

At This Experimental Culinary Event, The Cutlery Is High Art

Opera binocs. Food by Chef John N. Novi. Courtesy of Sergey Jivetin hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of Sergey Jivetin

Opera binocs. Food by Chef John N. Novi.

Courtesy of Sergey Jivetin

Welcome to the real-life Mad Hatter's tea party: Guests eat out of spiraling ceramics from spoons as long as their arms, while waiters serve the next course with flatware fused to opera glasses.

This fall, 60 guests will get to attend such a party at the Montalvo Arts Center, a villa in Saratoga, Calif. Chefs David Kinch, Corey Lee and Daniel Patterson — all of whom run Michelin-star restaurants — will be preparing a strange, scrumptious meal to boggle the senses, at an event organized by Steinbeisser, an Amsterdam-based group that organizes "experimental" culinary experiences.

The idea thoroughly intrigued us here at The Salt — but unfortunately none of us could spare $700 to purchase a ticket to the event.

Handle with food. Food by Chef John N. Novi. Courtesy of Sergey Jivetin hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of Sergey Jivetin

Handle with food. Food by Chef John N. Novi.

Courtesy of Sergey Jivetin

So we did the next best thing: We called up Sergey Jivetin, a sculptor based in High Falls, N.Y., who is one of several artists designing the silverware (if you can even call it that) for the meal. Jivetin has been working for more than two months on 60 pieces of whimsical cutlery incorporating antique optical gadgets. And lucky for us, he sent us some pictures of his work — so we could admire it on the cheap.

How does this collaboration between the artists and chefs work?

The chefs are going to get all these local ingredients, and then they will be inspired by all the design options on the table and they'll create food.

So you're going to create the cutlery first, and that's going to inspire the food?

Exactly. A chef is going to be looking at these objects maybe a few days in advance, and then create a menu based on them.

How did you become involved in this event?

I participated in a group art show in the Netherlands, and Martin Kullik [one of Steinbeisser's founders] called me. We started by discussing the idea of sustainable food.

Had you worked on cutlery before?

Tripod in use. Food by Chef John N. Novi. Courtesy of Sergey Jivetin hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of Sergey Jivetin

Tripod in use. Food by Chef John N. Novi.

Courtesy of Sergey Jivetin

Cutlery specifically? No. I started in metallurgy, but I'm not really a metalsmith because I've been using alternative materials [like carbon fiber and even eggshells] for the past 10 years. I tell people I'm a project-based sculptor.

Where have you turned for inspiration?

I'm also a gardener, and I've been particularly fascinated with all the small-scale intricacies of plants — of what a plant's leaves and seeds look like.

I used microscopes and I started to really look at those details of plants as something that's missing from our appreciation when we have food. For example, romanesco: Its details go down to an almost infinite scale.

So for this meal, I'm basically finding a lot of antique optic objects like opera glasses, map readers and other lenses and then converting them to cutlery. I'm finding a few of them locally, but most of them from eBay, and some of them even come from overseas.

How much do those antiques cost?

It depends on the condition of the piece. Opera glasses might range up to $100.

Tripod cubes. Food by Chef John N. Novi. Courtesy of Sergey Jivetin hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of Sergey Jivetin

Tripod cubes. Food by Chef John N. Novi.

Courtesy of Sergey Jivetin

I have a studio full of machine tools. I just ordered a pair of horn caviar spoons. I'm probably going to end up with double the amount of materials I would need for the project. I'll just have a giant box of stuff that I might or might not use ever again.

How do you think about taking an everyday item and turning it into something artistic?

I don't necessarily think of these pieces as particularly functional cutlery. I think of these as a way to participate with food. These pieces are so unique in form and so different than what regular cutlery would look like. I think by itself, the cutlery will put the person in a surprise mode, an exploration mode.

When I look at some of your pieces — like this one that looks like a tripod — it's beautiful, but it almost makes me laugh, because it looks so difficult to use.

That's exactly the point. Each one of the legs is a different implement: One is a fork, one is a spoon and one is a knife. The device itself is actually a map reader.

Do you have a favorite piece?

The one I'm working on each particular day is my favorite, so seriously, I do not. Each piece I love for whatever it does. No favorites. Maybe when I actually finish, I'll go back and think I like one the best.

Has this changed the way you look at silverware in the rest of your life?

Absolutely. For every one of these pieces, I've been researching and combining a lot of vintage elements. I've seen probably around 10,000 different vintage cutlery. So I got an incredible understanding of the variety of forms and functions that have been associated with cutlery.

Would you use this cutlery on a regular basis?

While they could be theoretically used ... I wouldn't necessarily. These are basically like sculptural objects that are also utensils.

What happens to the cutlery when the event is over?

It's going to travel to Europe where Martin is going to showcase it in several more events. The cutlery will be for sale. Some of the pieces might sell, but there's a possibility to keep the body of work together. I hope they travel the world as a group and make diners think twice.