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Art for Food

Dec 1, 2010

Trent Burkett shows the before and after of clay

At art galleries, where University of the Pacific professor Trent Burkett normally shows his work, people come specifically to enjoy and view the pieces. At MICHAEL MINA, a fine dining restaurant in San Francisco, Burkett's art is appreciated not as an art exhibit but as a functional and aesthetically pleasing part of the total dining experience.

Burkett's art can be seen throughout the restaurant, but not on the walls. Instead, it is on the tables serving as the plateware.

Michael Mina, creator of the re-imagined and re-located restaurant that bears his name, wanted to create an organic feel for his San Francisco restaurant, and part of that vision included having hand-made plates, serving platters and other dishes, where each piece is not an exact duplicate of the one at the next table.

Trent Burkett molds a serving bowlEach individual dish has a life of its own before it is used in the restaurant, and is used to enhance the food and the ambiance of the dining experience. "Not only are my dishes artwork that will be seen by many people, but they are enhanced by the color, texture and display of the artwork that the food placed on them creates," Burkett said.

The restaurant, which is on the site of what used to be the restaurant Aqua, serves modern American cuisine that Mina and Chef de Cuisine Jeremy Ravetz create using sensibilities with Japanese ingredients and French influence. In an effort to create an elegant, contemporary dining experience with a natural and relaxed feel, every detail was taken into consideration: from the architecture, to the plating of the food, to the handmade plateware.

Burkett, along with Jered Nelson and California State University in Sacramento Professor Scott Parady, was approached by Frost Tsuji Architects (FTA) in May about making all of the dishes for the restaurant. Wendy Tsuji from FTA knew about Burkett because she had purchased one of his and Parady's pieces for her personal collection some time earlier. When visiting a gallery, Tsuji was reintroduced to Burkett's art, and then offered Burkett and the other artists a position creating functional art to be used as dishes for the restaurant.

Some of the plates Trent Burkett has created for MICHAEL MINAThe process of creating the plateware began with Tsuji gathering feedback from the cooks. She then came up with designs for the plates and brought those to Burkett, Nelson and Parady. This included drawings of various forms and functional criteria. Prototypes were then created for approval by the chefs. Each handmade bowl, plate and cup had to meet exact dimensions specified by the restaurant staff.

"In a sense for us, the work in the restaurant is like having a continuous exhibition, but held within the context of an elevated dining experience that focuses on the beauty of food and utilitarian wares," Burkett said. "Many people who enter the restaurant will not know the plates they are eating off of are handmade, and it causes an artist to appreciate their own work in a different light."

The first order Burkett received was for 350 pieces of dinnerware. Subsequent orders have increased to total about 450 pieces. All the pieces he made were marked with his chop, a device that allows him to imprint his initials into a piece while it is drying. The project is far from finished. He continues to work with Mina on concepts for new tableware, as the restaurant's chef develops new dishes.

Burkett, an associate professor at Pacific in the Department of Visual Arts, has worked for the last 10 years teaching students the art of ceramics and sculpture while working on his own mixed-media pieces. This project has allowed him to use it as an experiential learning opportunity for his students. He often incorporates techniques used in his artwork in his classes at the University. For the restaurant project, he has also taken on Jessica Fong, a sophomore working towards a BFA in visual art, Shilo Gastello, a senior BFA student, and recent alumni Lauren Carter and Brooke Cashion, as apprentices. This project has afforded them a unique opportunity to learn about all the aspects of designing and creating work for a client, as well as the challenges of creating functional art that will do more than just be on display.

Although his work is not being viewed in the traditional gallery setting, Burkett is pleased that thousands of people will be able to appreciate his work while using it at the restaurant. "MICHAEL MINA is serving artwork along with food. The combination of the atmosphere, the plating of the food, and of course, the dishes, is artwork in itself that I am proud to be a part of."

Trent Burkett

Professor Burkett's role in the Michael Mina plateware was featured in this Sacramento Bee article.