|Food is an essential component of life. In Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs it is second only to “air”
in the basic, most fundamental tier of needs for sustaining human life. Hunger is the first impulse
that drives us to seek out food, but when the ability to eat is a certainty our hunger becomes
less about fulfilling a simple need than it is about what we desire. Let’s say that you’re hungry;
in our world today the question immediately becomes “hungry for what?” Perhaps, Italian?
Well, would you like to microwave a chicken picatta Lean Cuisine, boil some pasta for
spaghetti, or order a pizza? All of these options will, without question, provide sustenance
in varying degrees of Italian authenticity, but are they enough? Are they what you want?
And if not, then perhaps you want something more than just food.
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|When I spoke with John Tesar, chef of Spoon and Knife, about his approach to creating a
restaurant he stated that “I think that it really starts with the psychology of what people want
and expect from a restaurant.” When I spoke with Kent Rathbun , chef of Abacus, about his
own approach I believe that he provided the framework for understanding that psychology.
When Rathbun was developing the concept of Abacus he ended up in Paris at a restaurant
called Buddha Bar, and it wasn’t until he’d walked out the door that he stopped and realized
that he had found just what he was looking for. He was on the street in Paris, and yet Buddha
Bar had felt like a world apart- untouched by notions of bistros or mirrored walls. What Rathbun
wanted to create was a restaurant that could be anywhere because it wasn’t beholden to
anything but itself.
|Restaurants at the level of cuisine that Kent Rathbun and John Tesar operate on are less about
not wanting the headache of cooking and cleaning up at home, and more about the
experience of going to a particular place for a particular kind of food. You go to their
restaurants, not just because they have an approach and flair in their field that produces
dishes that are utterly unique to their gifts, but because they apply that same vision and
passion to the restaurant itself. During our conversation, John Tesar brought up the notion
that “You eat with your eyes first,” which is something that carries over in both Tesar and
Rathbun’s restaurants far beyond the plate that is set in front of you.
|When it comes to the design of his restaurants Kent Rathbun “firmly believe(s) that the
atmosphere of a restaurant is everything.” He describes himself as “the kind of person
who walks into a room, and if there’s too much stuff (he’s) just climbing up the walls.”
“I like things that are clean and orderly. I think that there can be too much design.”
In putting together Abacus, Rathbun worked with EDG / Engstrom Design Group to
capture the perfect atmosphere for his restaurant, and in order to create it Rathbun
was“very highly involved” for the simple reason that “Everything that we do at our
restaurants has to do with the design of everything.” For Rathbun, the appearance
of a light fixture can all but determine what ends up on a menu. In the case of
Abacus everything was predicated on the concept of “shape in a shape,” which
was inspired by a fabric pattern that had an oval inside of a square. The restaurant
itself has a remarkable exterior with bold, expressive shapes that are balanced
weightlessly on top of each other. You’ll notice the emphasis on solid, sculptural
forms carries through to the interior and even to thedishes themselves- several
invoking the idea of making a shape within a shape (such as the popular tower
and roll dishes), which creates a telescoping interplay of visual cues that reinforce
the concept. It all feels very playful, and certainly crystallizes Rathbun’s desire
to create dishes that emphasize “different colors, different flavors (and) different
heights”- some plainly out in the open and others hidden within, waiting to
|Spoon by John Tesar - photos: kevin marple
|abacus by Kent Rathburn
|Spoon photos: kevin marple
|Like Rathbun with Abacus, John Tesar found his inspiration for Spoon in a far flung location, but
instead of Paris he was on Puget Sound filming an episode of Top Chef. When discussing the
path that led him to Spoon, Tesar says “I had no idea what it was going to be,” and “I was
very cautious as to what I was going to do (with the new restaurant).” This was after his short
time as the new guiding force behind the Mansion at Turtle Creek had ended, and he was
still at a loss for what came next. “I had to find my way back to who I was….the food idea
came from what is near and dear to me.” Standing there looking out on the water put
Tesar in mind of his East Coast background, and led him to the conclusion that he wanted
to focus on seafood. Certainly Dallas has seafood restaurants, but for something as high-end
as what Tesar had in mind there aren’t really any contemporaries. He teamed up with design
duo Charles Taylor and Breck Woolsey of Breckinridge Taylor, who have become his go-to
collaborators when he’s opening a new restaurant, and they went through the process of
saying “yes” to this color of metal and “no” to that material to give the space the right feel.
“I wanted it to look like the Hamptons, Greece….,” and the resulting aesthetic feels refreshingly
clean, sharp and nautical without resorting to signal flags. “I’m not a modernist” Tesar asserts,
“I’m a minimalist in the sense of if I can close my eyes and say this tastes good.” Whether
consciously or unconsciously, the simplicity of Spoon is a confrontation of independence:
each component of its design and food is given enough room and significance so that it
must be taken in and appreciated on its own terms- together, but apart.
|“Synaesthesia” is a phenomenon that is produced in our minds when one of our senses triggers
another sense. The restaurants that Kent Rathbun and John Tesar have created are meant to
engage us in ways that art galleries, movie theaters, concert halls and department stores can’t:
taste is the ultimate goal and sensation that they strive for, but sight, scent, feel and even sound
are all given thought and care to heighten and enrich the experience of taste. Going to their
restaurants surrounds you in a sensory experience at all levels, and if they’ve done their job right
you’ll be back- hungry for more.
experiencing the restaurants
of Kent Rathbun + John Tesar
by J. Claiborne Bowdon
|abacus by Kent Rathburn