Antto Melasniemi started out as a restaurateur in Finland, became a culinary designer and is coming here next week to build a solar kitchen at the Dead Sea. Food is much more than something to eat, he says.
By Yuval Saar

The rumor spread among the visitors at last year’s London Design Festival. Everyone was talking about an industrial space on the east side of the city that had been converted into a restaurant, called Hel Yes!, that served traditional Finnish food. The place’s interior design was based on traditional meeting places where nomads who roamed the icy Baltic Sea between Finland and Estonia would gather in ancient times. The utensils and textiles at the eatery were all of Finnish design. All the plates were different and had been collected during a series of meals in Helsinki, where all the invitees were asked to bring their old Iittala (a familiar Finnish brand ) dishes and trade it for new ones – in return for telling the story behind each plate.

Antto Melasniemi, a 36-year-old Helsinki native, and the chef and concept designer of Hel Yes!, says, “I thought it would be nice to create a total experience,” he says. “A place where you can touch the objects in a certain space, where you can use them and not just look at them.”
Roasted beets – Adam Laycock – December 2011

Roasted beets with sour cream and dill.
Photo by: Adam Laycock

His work on Hel Yes! showcases Melasniemi’s interest in food as something that is more than a source of nutrition, and rather as something with a broader social significance: “I’m interested in food as a cultural phenomenon and as a language. Instead of being a chef, I enjoy working with conceptual ideas and installations that are related to eating and restaurants.”

Along with Melasniemi at Hel Yes! is a team that includes two Finns: creative director Klaus Haapaniemi, 41, and art director, Mia Wallenius, 41. Haapaniemi is a fashion illustrator whose projects includes display windows for department stores in Paris, Tokyo and London, and illustrations for Vogue magazine. Wallenius also works in the fashion world and works on behalf of various cultural institutions. Her approach to the restaurant project combined fantasy, drama and surprise with superb craftsmanship. In the catalog produced about the Hel Yes! project, the artists describe themselves as hunters, collectors and designers who created an exhibition around and about food, while relying on nature as a source of inspiration.

Meanwhile, Helsinki has been chosen by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design as the world design capital for 2012; numerous events will be held there in the coming year. In view of this, Suzanne Millner, the cultural attache at the Finnish embassy in Israel, is looking into potential collaborative efforts. To this end, she approached Faza, an Israeli production company, and it arranged for Melasniemi and interior designer and curator Kaisa Blomstedt to come to Israel last month, to meet with leading chefs and designers.

When he was younger, music was Melasniemi’s chief pursuit; he played sax and keyboard in a rock band. He left high school at 16 to go to cooking school. After three years, he decided he wanted to travel and cook, and spent a year working at different wineries throughout France, and later in Paris, London and Amsterdam. He returned to Helsinki in 2005 and opened his first restaurant, Kuurna, where he focused on dishes based on local ingredients: “Excellent home-style food, a lot of fish and venison, and ingredients collected in the forests.” He subsequently opened another restaurant and also began to take an interest in design.

Today he calls himself a culinary master of hospitality. “Restaurant design is something holistic that requires one to think about many things beyond food and drink: colors, ambience, lighting, cutlery,” he said during his recent visit, adding with a smile: “The food itself isn’t that important.” But he was quick to add that it is important to look at the sources of the food, where it grows and comes from.

“I wanted to see how food influences people, and culture, how it influences nature and language,” he continued. “Design is an important element in food, one that can be used to make the diners feel that they are a part of the whole thing. I can plan a restaurant as theater, as a work of art or as a design exhibition. I can use food to create all kinds of experiences. It’s very flexible.”

Once upon a time, food was just food. “In Hel Yes! the food was very simple, even primitive, not expensive, something based more on ingredients than on the restaurant culture. Serving cooked fish with vegetables is about as unpretentious as you can get.”

We look at some stylized pictures of a rabbit and of a pigeon stuffed with vegetables. They look like works of art, but are supposed to be eaten. “It can be attractive or off-putting. But it makes one think about the sources of the food. The rabbit is eating vegetables,” he added, smiling again.

Cooked by the sun

Six months after the visit to Hel Yes! I came across another project by Melasniemi, the Solar Kitchen Restaurant – a joint project with designer Marti Guixe. In the courtyard of Milan’s design museum, as part of the annual design festival there, the two built an environmental gastronomic project that included cooking by means of the sun’s rays, via a solar-energy device. Because of the positioning of the pot in relation to the receptor, the heat envelops the food and cooks it on all sides.

Next week, Melasniemi will come to Israel again and build a solar kitchen at the Dead Sea, as part of an annual seminar held by the department of industrial design at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. Within the ecological context, Melasniemi aims to explore certain questions as part of this project, such as what is a kitchen and what is cooking, in relation to nature and to human nature. And, “to what extent are we prepared to adapt ourselves to the conditions of nature, and to the possibility that we won’t be able to eat what we planned because a cloud suddenly appears. These are not meaningless questions.”

Why did you choose to present this idea in Milan?

“There’s a connection between design and hospitality. We showed an archetype of a new way to run restaurants. No one had ever built anything like it. It’s modest, it’s about adapting yourself to nature and being flexible, being ready to accept the fact that the weather could change the course of the meal.”

Is there a difference in the taste?

“Solar cooking preserves the texture and color of the food better than when you toss things in the oven.”

And what were the responses like in Milan?

“People were surprised, they didn’t think it would work. We served genuine Italian food. We wanted to be faithful to the local cuisine and ingredients.”

The day I got to the museum in Milan, the meal was canceled because clouds were covering the sun. Israeli industrial designer and curator Liora Rosin arrived the next day, when the sun was shining brightly. “They didn’t invent solar ovens, which are used mainly in Third World countries, where the sun is the most freely available source,” she said. “But they brought solar ovens to a place that is so well fed – to a part of Italy. They weren’t feeding hungry people there. To me, the project starts to get interesting when it fails – when you have all of this abundance but you can’t do anything with the products when it’s cloudy out.”

Did the food taste different?

Rosin: “I didn’t notice the ‘taste’ of the sun, but you could feel that the food was made with sensitivity, with love, with faith and with a very high level of skill. That was very clear. Even a poached egg – it’s something that may seems trivial and simple, but you have to know how to make it. Melasniemi focuses a lot on the connection between the place and the food he is offering. He won’t serve pineapple in a place where pineapple doesn’t grow; he based the entire meal on local ingredients.”

What does all this have to do with design?

“We are able to read or to ‘sense’ food more than anything else, it’s an easy medium with which it’s easy to convey ideas. For nearly everyone, food arouses associations, and often it’s the same association. It is a very low common denominator; it uses that platform to convey a message. Here they’re talking about resources, about the sources of heat. Up to now it was popular to focus on the origin of food, but now they’re focusing on the origin of the energy.”

How does this relate to similar things that are happening in the world of design?

“The Dutch food designer Maria Vogelzang also deals a lot with the source of food and with local culture, but she’s practically a choreographer for the people who eat her food: When she has a dialogue with people, they practically become puppets in her shows. She’s a successful designer, and gets them to dance; she offers them an interesting experience. Melasniemi really wants to feed people. It’s something closer, it’s the thing itself. Her activity is more akin to a laboratory, while Melasniemi gets closer to the final product.”

Ultimately, Melasniemi’s goal is to take these ovens to the Third World, says Rosin. “I know he wants to bring them to Africa but he found out that people there eat dinner later, when there’s no sun. He didn’t plan to do this just in Italy.”

Melasniemi is already at work on his next project, a new restaurant in Stockholm, which will be based on movement and dance. “We’re working with a choreographer of modern dance,” he said. “It will be a more spiritual thing, with cosmic energy.”

Do you think your ideas could catch on in Israel?

Melasniemi: “Sure, I think people here are open to such ideas. There are a lot of nice restaurants there, the food is amazing, the people are wonderful. Let’s see what happens at the Dead Sea. Let’s see how it goes.”