David Muise talks about utensils the way other people talk about art or their favorite piece of furniture. To him, a fork is not just a vehicle for getting a bite of meatloaf into your mouth.

“The question I always ask people is – regardless of what you think of our flatware – are you using some sort of flatware that speaks to and of the person that you are, in relation to how you view your food culture and the food choices that you make?”

Muise and his friend and business partner, Bill Todd, have designed a new line of ceramic flatware that they say will change the way you eat and think about food. Stainless steel is old school. Gone are the teaspoon and salad fork, replaced by a combination teaspoon-tablespoon and a fork that can both stab a steak and pick up a pea. Their flatware – the line is called Certine – does not have traditional flat handles. Certine handles are triangular, in an attempt to make them more ergonomic.

The explosion in food culture has led to innovation in almost every part of the dining process, from the way people get their food to the way they prep it. One thing that has not changed much in the past century, Muise argues, is “the part you stick right in your mouth.”

Oddly enough, Muise and Todd came to their interest in flatware separately, then bonded over happy hour at David’s restaurant in Monument Square.

Muise, who was working as server at David’s Opus 10, remembers an evening when he was setting the tables and suddenly realized that nearly everything in front of him, from the butter dish to the dinner plates, were made of ceramic. As he laid down the flatware, “it seemed odd and out of place that I would be putting down these metal instruments.”

But it was just a passing thought.

Bill Todd, left, Rachel Rodrigues and David Muise, co-founders of Certine flatware, at Casco Bay Cutlery in Freeport.

Bill Todd, left, Rachel Rodrigues and David Muise, co-founders of Certine flatware, at Casco Bay Cutlery in Freeport. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

A MATTER OF TASTE

Then one day when he was visiting with Todd, who works in finance in Portland – this was five years ago – Todd told him how he had been eating a stew made with cherry tomatoes and andouille sausage when he had a terrible experience.

“I had dental work and a regular spoon and fork,” Todd recalled. When he took a bite of the acidic stew, “I tasted the fork, and I didn’t like the taste. When you have amalgam fillings and nickel and acid, you create a battery in your mouth. And I thought, why can’t we have (ceramic) spoons like we have in Asian restaurants?”

Todd started researching and brainstorming with Muise, who has been involved in entrepreneurial projects before, and the two set about finding out what kind of ceramic mixture they would need to manufacture their own cutlery. They started thinking about design.

The last innovation in forks, Muise notes, was in the early 1800s when they went from three tines to four tines. “This is complacency,” he said. “And it’s also profitability. You can manufacture a fork made out of steel for dirt cheap.”

One of the big issues they wanted to tackle was taste.

“For some people, it’s noticeably metallic or bitter” to eat with a stainless steel utensil, Muise said. “When your food, the metal, the unique pH balance of your saliva and or any dental work you may have is interacting with food, your fork or your spoon becomes, in essence, the final arbiter of flavor.”

Sarah Coffin, head of the product design and decorative arts department at Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, said the same rationale has long been used for silver, “that the taste is benign.” Although stainless steel is said to be “pretty neutral,” she said, “I don’t happen to like (it) very much in terms of eating off it. I do think it does slightly” impart a taste. And it turns out there is precedent for ceramic cutlery: Knife and fork handles and entire spoons were sometimes made of porcelain a few hundred years ago, she said, but “they rarely survived.”

There’s also the issue of the transfer of heat and cold. Put a metal spoon into hot soup, and within seconds the spoon is really hot and the soup is cooling, Muise and Todd say. Similarly, ice cream sticks to stainless spoons, like a tongue on a frozen flagpole.

Hold up a utensil at home, and you’ll see lots of microabrasions and perhaps some pitting on the stainless steel, which can affect texture and provide hiding places for bacteria.

For months, Muise worked nights as a server, and spent his days reading scientific journals, working on designs and contacting manufacturers. He consulted with a ceramics expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the inventor of the ceramic baseball bat. It was a time, he recalls, of “going down through so many rabbit holes, in terms of materials.”

Certine flatware is designed to change the way you eat and think about food.

Certine flatware is designed to change the way you eat and think about food. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

WELCOME TO CERAMIC CITY

Once they had their ceramics formula, they had to find a place to manufacture it and make their cutlery. They discovered that the bulk of consumer ceramics is manufactured in China, where it has a 3,000-year-old tradition.

“That was pointed out to us numerous times by ceramics experts in this country,” Muise said. ” ‘Did you ever think about making it in the birthplace of ceramics, China?’ ”

That’s how Certine flatware came to be made in Shenzhen, where a region of the city is known as “Ceramic City.”

Muise and the Todds (Bill Todd’s wife, Rachel Rodrigues, is a business partner) have applied for provisional patents on both the ceramics-making process they developed and their designs. The project is entirely self-funded.

There are only three pieces to the Certine set because, Muise said, “we were interested in sustainable dematerialization, which in essence says if you’re using a material that’s a commodity try to use less of it, but get more function out of it.” Muise muses that the only reason to keep a set of five pieces is tradition.

The Certine spoon can hold as much as a tablespoon, but it is tapered at the top so it can fit into, say, a yogurt container. The fork has two interior piercing tines and two shorter exterior tines, making it a combination of a salad and dinner fork. The fork also has a rounded shoulder that creates a fulcrum for people who like to cut their food with their fork.

The cutlery is much smoother than stainless steel – no more microabrasions – and can only be scratched with diamond or boxite, Muise said. The flatware, especially the fork, can break if misused – don’t try prying open cans or dropping the pieces from a great height – but for normal daily use, it is very durable, he said. “The knife and spoon are pretty tough,” Muise said.

Todd and Muise have made their own little discoveries after switching over from stainless steel to smooth ceramic. Todd says he’s been most surprised by the difference in the way he eats desserts – no more licking cake frosting off a fork (although some people might like that little chore). He says his children now refuse to eat ice cream with anything other than a ceramic spoon.

The business partners have also discovered some markets for their product that they did not expect. Muise has heard from many people who have nickel allergies and only use wood or bamboo utensils. And he donated some flatware to the Dempsey Center in Lewiston after learning that some people who receive chemotherapy sometimes get a condition that makes everything taste bitter and metallic.

DEBUTING AT DINNERS

Muise and Todd are planning some dinners at local restaurants to showcase their flatware, including a ceramics showcase of sorts at Piccolo later this month and a “tabletop takeover” at Vinland in November. Details to come.

They’ll also have a booth at Harvest on the Harbor.

One set of Certine costs $39.95; a set of four is $159.60. This clearly puts it in the premium flatware category, but Muise and Todd don’t mind. It can be purchased from their website, on Amazon.com, and at Casco Bay Cutlery & Kitchenware in Freeport; Now You’re Cooking in Bath; the Good Table in Belfast; and Rooster Brother in Ellsworth.

Muise said that ultimately he and Todd would like to see their flatware in every specialty kitchen store in the United States. They would also like to expand to Europe soon.

Hundreds of years ago, people carried utensils with them, and their quality demonstrated their own refinement, Coffin said. Over subsequent centuries, people were concerned with flatware, designing utensils and dishware that reflected contemporary food trends, buying lavish silver sets. Today, we’re often harried and eating on the run, and so “Nowadays, I think people don’t think about it as much.” But she liked the idea of a product that could return people’s attention to flatware. Utensils are such a personal item. “It is about the only thing one puts into the human body other than a medical device,” she said.

Muise readily admits that most people don’t care that much about what flatware they use.

“At this point,” he said, “this product is for the type of people who make dinner reservations before they make hotel reservations, because if you don’t get the dinner reservations you’re probably not going to that town. It’s for people who go to buy foodstuffs three or four times a week as opposed to one time a week. It’s for the kind of people who take more pictures of their food than they do their children or their pets. It’s ultimately for the kind of people who are thinking about genuine interaction with their food.”

Food editor Peggy Grodinsky contributed to this story.