The National Restaurant Association's annual show, with its aromas of greasy pizza and fried everything, is an unlikely launching pad for a collection of serviceware heretofore seen only at Alinea, the accolade-laden Chicago restaurant owned by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas.
But there was the badge-wearing Kokonas on Saturday, the show's opening day, working the crowd at a prominent corner of the Steelite International booth.
The six porcelain serving pieces in the collection were designed for specific dishes at Alinea by Martin Kastner, with whom Achatz and Kokonas collaborated when opening their newest restaurant and bar, Next and Aviary.
Kastner has partnered with Steelite, a Pennsylvania company that will manufacture the pieces on a much larger scale -- but for restaurants, not for home use.
Several stainless steel pieces will be released in the fall, followed by glassware currently being used at Aviary -- up to 25 or 30 pieces by the end of the year, Kokonas said.
"It's difficult to let go of certain aspects," said Kastner, who works out of his Crucial Detail studio on the Near West Side. "I don't have the ability to inspect every piece."
But, said Kokonas, who calls Kaster "persnickety," "The quality of these is the same as what Martin was doing."
What will most certainly be different is how others restaurants use the sculpturally striking pieces. Kokonas says a hotel in Las Vegas ordered 500 of the pronged cork presenters, and is using them as taco holders.
Recently, Kokonas saw a photo in a newspaper article of the same contraption being used by a chef -- to hold his cigarette.
On a related note: Because of the show, Next and Aviary are open tonight (Monday is usually an off day for both). On Saturday morning, Kokonas posted a notice on Facebook for 22 Monday night tables at Next; they were sold out in eight seconds, he said.