Dutch collective Steinbeisser’s immersive events pair top chefs with boundary-pushing design to create “uncomfortably pleasant” dining experiences
“To get the best ingredients in the world and cook them perfectly is not the most difficult thing. The most difficult thing is to cook with an intention,” says world-renowned chef André Chiang, who is known for his “octaphilosophy” of food, the coming together of eight key elements to create the perfect dish. Chiang is no stranger to experimentation, but his latest project rethinks not just food itself but the wider question of how we eat.
He is visiting Amsterdam for Experimental Gastronomy, an occasional series of events that explore a multi-sensory, mindful way of eating. It’s the work of Steinbeisser, a Dutch creative collective founded in 2009 by Jouw Wijnsma and Martin Kullik. Their intention is unusual: to disrupt the conventions of dining and create an immersive experience that Chiang describes as “uncomfortably pleasant”.
Such oxymorons are typical of the evening in which I am invited to take part. Even the venue, an 18th-century former water-board headquarters built on a sea wall on the outskirts of the city, embodies this incongruence – its handsome shuttered facade and immaculate lawns at odds with the landscape of cranes and concrete motorway bridges across the water.
The eight-course vegan taster menu we are here for is served and eaten using glassware, plates and utensils designed by 15 artists who were hand-picked by Steinbeisser for their intriguing, avant-garde approaches. In line with the project’s mischievous aim to force participants out of their comfort zone, many of the artists were also nudged into unfamiliar territory. For example, the tiny, interlocking soapstone plates that our cylindrical sticky-rice
canapés are served on were created by Dutch jeweller Elwy Schutten. “Normally, I make just one piece,” she explains; Kullik commissioned 20. All of these exclusive collaborations are then made available to buy via Steinbeisser’s online outlet, Jouw Store.
Up a dark-wood staircase, a dining room with swirling blue and gold textile wallpaper, crystal chandeliers and gold-framed mirrors awaits us. The decoration of the two long tables is contrastingly primitive, with wild flowers and grasses twisted together in a knot and perched on the white tablecloth, vase-free. The flowers, like the food, reflect the concept’s commitment to organic and biodynamic produce sourced as locally as possible. Even the soy sauce is barrel-aged in nearby Rotterdam.
That’s where creativity comes from. Every good solution, every creation, comes from inconvenience and limitation
At each place setting is laid a “cutlery comb” designed by British artist Rachael Colley: a row of repurposed Sheffield stainless-steel forks held together by a colourful frame made from powder-coated steel. Like many of the objects introduced this evening, the comb walks a tightrope between art and functionality. It’s a striking piece but a challenging utensil for attacking our starter of tomato, elderflower and strawberry consommé with a startlingly
hot green curry sorbet, and it is also a rather inadequate napkin holder.
“The food that we have every day, we take it for granted,” explains Chiang. “Only when this relationship turns sour, do you start to appreciate it more. If I serve you soup with a fork, you start to miss the spoon. You start to appreciate the spoon more than before.”
Over the evening, our expectations as diners are challenged repeatedly: the clay dish by US ceramic artist Adam Knoche that looks like black, charred wood; the plate by South Korean jewellery-maker Myung Orso that appears at first to be an edible part of the dish but is actually paper clay and bio-resin; and the salami-like “sweet meat” course, which Chiang tells us to drop into our mouths like Dutch herring, but is in fact made of dried and then
When our smoked aubergine with a caviar of summer-cypress seeds is cleared away, a perplexing object designed by Norwegian artist Stian Korntved Ruud is laid in its place: half gong and half utensil, it’s not clear if it is for eating or for making music. “Can I take your spoon, just to investigate?” asks my neighbour, as various sounds – some pleasant, some painful – bounce around the room.
Some diners have unwieldy instruments the size of small saucepan lids and others have impossibly small spoons, unsuited to the chunky texture of the seven-grains main course that follows. Opposite me, two diners have been given an alternative challenge, a heavy hybrid of tool and spoon – in this case a wrench and a spanner – forged by Estonian blacksmith Nils Hint. At up to 39cm in length, the going is tricky until they embrace the interactive nature of the meal and resolve to feed each other. Suddenly, the length of the utensil becomes an asset rather than an inconvenience.
Chiang’s meal may be over, but the search for new ways to enjoy food is not. In early October,Experimental Gastronomy went to Vienna for a two-night collaboration with chefs Lukas Mraz, Philip Rachinger and Felix Schellhorn (aka The Healthy Boy Band), with more planned for 2020. Perhaps the event has had as profound an effect on them as it has had on Chiang. “The experimental dinner is to throw out questions, not to give an answer,” he said. “That’s where creativity comes from. Every good solution, every creation, comes from inconvenience and limitation.”