I have always felt that if you do something enough times, no matter how difficult (or enjoyable), you will inevitably become accustomed to it and its process, sometimes at the cost of the experience itself. Let me explain, as chefs, we are expected to create and innovate regularly as part of our jobs, and more often than not, with the intention of utilizing what’s on-hand or what components are considered appropriate (seasonal, trendy, traditional). Periodically, we are afforded the luxury of starting with a clean slate in the form of a new menu, and this allows for us to pick and choose what components, techniques, and inspiration to use. When it comes to conceptualizing a new dish, the sky is the limit if you have time. Recently, I found myself becoming almost indifferent to the creative process in developing and researching new menus. I had to remind myself that not every chef has this opportunity, and I should be grateful. To share the experience with my team of chefs, I decided to transfer a lot of the creative responsibility to them, so they can experience the pressure, delight and sometimes frustrations that come with creating new menus. By watching them go through the process, I found myself reinvigorated.
For the sake of time and space, I will skip the rather involved processes of menu development like costing, flow, cross utilization and other often overlooked aspects of making a dish. Instead, I will relate the creation process from beginning to end. By answering my chefs’ questions, guiding them, setting rules and establishing standards, I was fortunate to see them create a host of new items, challenging them and affording professional development. I have come a long way in a short amount of time, since the first time I was given creative control in a kitchen. I admit, I learned valuable lessons during the early days that continue to guide me every day. Since then, I have somewhat forgotten just how exciting the process of transforming ideas to prototypes to finished products can be. Also, I’ve forgotten how much personal investment and courage it takes to put yourself out there trying to impress and create value in this industry.
This process, like any other, follows a pretty predictable flow, but albeit a fluid and sometimes unforgiving one, resulting in failures as often as successes. It all starts with an idea phase, when you are seeking inspiration. A spark of inspiration can happen in any number of ways and is quite unique to each individual chef. I have read interviews with chefs and talked to a number of industry professionals. The ways in which they find inspiration can vary dramatically. Some accredit music, while others draw inspiration from ingredients or the local culinary themes, and some from TV or media. I rely on journaling to help put my thoughts in order, both professionally and personally. More often than not, my past experiences guide me through the creation process. By logging my past ideas, successes and experiences in a journal, I can quantify the components driving me to determine what will work. Examples of journaling topics or notes include memories, menus, books, conversations, criticisms and such; however, they always end up in a list scribbled across my notebook, and I find myself drawing conclusions and paths between them.
I encouraged my staff to follow the same basic process. Regarding a seasonal menu, they were instructed to write down what they anticipated cooking, as well as anything they have been interested in trying, what they have done in the past that worked well, and what they were comfortable replicating and improving upon. This is a simpler version of what I use, but in my opinion, it’s the development of their own process they learned the most from and not from following my exact structure. The following week I collected their lists of ideas using them as the building blocks for a few dishes they would help develop for the next menu. The couple of chefs who saw their ideas make the first cut were proud to be part of the process and to assume some responsibility, at least initially. As it turns out, the easy part of my process is the idea phase. Next, it was time to figure out if the ideas would work and how to make them feasible. In order to do this, I introduced the next part of the process: how I decide what a dish needs, doesn’t need or when it is balanced.
Based on what I have learned, I breakdown a dish into necessary components: taste, texture, color, base and garnish. I imagine everyone has a functional familiarity of pairing tastes and how too much or too little of something can make or break a dish. Think sweet and salty, as opposed to bitter and salty. I admit, this is very important, and there are several instructional texts printed on this essential balance; however, in my opinion, it’s only the bare minimum. Of course, it’s possible to put a couple of things together that taste great and satisfy a craving, but will they impress? And if not, how do you make them impress? The following steps of the process establish how to do this and will help to meet or exceed the perceived value of a dish, and more importantly, its price. After all, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are delicious and work, but can you sell them as a dessert in their standard form? No.
The four components following taste (texture, color, base and garnish) are interchangeable and open to interpretation. An ingredient can fulfill more than one of these four aspects if done in a truly exceptionally way, contrary to its ‘typical’ function in traditional menus. On the other hand, to omit one of these components for simplicity sake or laziness is unacceptable. If the garnish can provide an unexpected texture and taste accenting the primary base ingredients, then you just saved yourself some time. If it doesn’t and it’s purely aesthetic, or worse even, inedible, then you have not added to the dish. Your base ingredients, like starch and protein, should be treated with creative respect, but they should work together to supply a foundation for your dish. The texture, color or garnish can come in any number of sauces or premade items, but they shouldn’t overshadow the base itself. Balance is crucial and probably the most important thing, and I am still striving to perfect it. I have utilized well wholesome foods prepared simply and finished with technique and classical structure, but traditionally, these items lack a balance in most forms. Think of that often too heavy application of ketchup to an otherwise well-made meat loaf.
Although a simple idea, I believe it’s important to try and sneak in a surprise into each dish, whether that is a contrasting flavor, exotic spice or unusual preparation of an ingredient. This final step is how you make classical or comfort foods standout. Just when my chefs thought they were done, I asked them what part of the dish was surprising. Unexpectedly, they offered several examples I overlooked, and it turned out most of what we worked on previously satisfied that component already. It was a pleasant surprise. I became aware that my teachings were internalized by my chefs, and they knew my expectations. By adhering to this process, my diners consider my steak and potatoes as better than others’, even though I initially didn’t think so. While it’s important to innovate and try new things, it’s also important not to overdo it. Usually during new menu tastings with my staff, I receive poor reviews due to over-thinking or over-processing dishes. I like to hope this simple four-part process helps me to know when to stop and when to keep going.
One morning in culinary school, I remember one of my chef instructors complaining that the new generation of cooks worried too much about how their food looked and not enough about how it tasted. Where I agree or disagree with him isn’t important; I understand what he meant. You must find a balance in what you create, and do not let your successes override your sense of the basics, like taste, value, etc. My chefs have learned that whether you are working with peanut butter and jelly or caviar and truffles, if you approach them the same way with the same standards and a set of rules you always follow, you will stand a greater chance of success in satisfying your own creative needs, as well as the needs and expectation of your guests. Not to mention, waste a lot less caviar and truffles in your attempts.