Creativity, In the Most Unexpected Places


Photo by xmatt/FlickrCC

It was apparent to me recently that my creative process was becoming an ossified series of systems, or a thinking template if you will. Every season I have the responsibly to change the Alinea menu virtually in its entirety, and recently I have been actively pursuing the task in a methodical way.

I call it the anti-creative way, because it rarely produces something truly original or new. Sure, dishes read differently on paper, ingredients are substituted for one other, and presentations vary slightly. And I might even go so far as to say that most of the guests of the restaurant would consider the creations "new." But I won't say that, and the frustrations go on. I joke to my sous chefs all the time, "You only come up with one Hot Pot a year." I'm referencing the Hot Potato-Cold Potato dish that we came up with in October 2006, which to me is a great example of creative thinking and originality.

Click here to watch a video of hot potato/cold potato preparation (Quicktime movie).

You can't force creativity, and for me, creativity cannot be controlled at all. Producing a new dish is not really creativity, is it? I think it is the intangible thoughts that lead up to the idea for a dish that are the pure definition of creativity. I often say that being creative is simply being aware of your surroundings, and translating these impulses into a specific medium. For me, that medium is cooking and dining.

The irony of being a chef is that you are so tied to the responsibility of production, the actual cooking of the ideas for the diners each night, that you rarely have a change in environment that could provide creative stimulus. The routine becomes stifling to the imagination.

With all of these new sights, smells, experiences, and tastes came the impulses of creativity that I had hoped for.

Luckily for me, I had the opportunity to travel to Japan this past February. I had always wanted to visit Japan, and all reports from people close to me suggested I would be creatively engaged from the experience. Most guests at Alinea figured I had already been, often telling me how they viewed both the food and presentation styles to be heavily influenced by Japan. For that reason, my expectations were high, and I was excited by the chance to be inspired by thousands of years of culture and cooking.

The trip did not disappoint. Different than traveling to Europe, which I do many times a year, being submersed in the eastern world proved to be void of familiarity. With all of these new sights, smells, experiences, and tastes came the impulses of creativity that I had hoped for.

There were the obvious sources of ideas, like the exposure of never before seen ingredients, while walking through the endless Nishiiki market in Kyoto, smelling the wafting blend of charcoal and rendered chicken fat when passing several yakkitori restaurants, or witnessing the skilled fishmongers butchering fish at Tsukiji market.

But the ones that had the most impact on me were the least obvious.

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Grant Achatz is chef and owner of Chicago's Alinea. He grew up in the restaurant industry, literally, with restaurateurs as parents and grandparents. More

Born in Michigan in 1974, Grant Achatz grew up in the restaurant industry, literally, with his parents and grandparents being restaurateurs. Naturally curious and always driven, he could be found in the kitchen by his twelfth birthday and over the coming years spent most of his free time there, learning and developing the very skills that would allow him to become one of the foremost innovators in the field. Early on he realized he wanted to become a chef, and upon graduating from high school, he immediately enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America. Excelling at the CIA, Achatz graduated and ascended the culinary ladder at several prestigious restaurants, including the acclaimed French Laundry in Napa Valley. Achatz worked closely with owner Thomas Keller, and thrived in his highly creative, dedicated environment. After two years, he became Keller's Sous Chef. In a decisive move to broaden his knowledge and experience, Achatz accepted a position as Assistant Winemaker at La Jota Vineyards after four years at The French Laundry. Then in 2001, he returned to the Midwest when he accepted the Executive Chef position at the four-star Trio in Evanston, Illinois. Achatz flourished at Trio, garnering accolades including being named the James Beard Foundation's 2003 Rising Star Chef in America and one of ten "Best New Chefs in America" by Food & Wine in 2002. Under Achatz's lead, Trio received four stars from the Chicago Tribune and Chicago magazine and was honored with five stars from the celebrated Mobil Travel Guide in 2004. Known worldwide in culinary circles as one of the leaders in progressive cuisine, Achatz realized a lifelong dream by opening Alinea in Chicago in May 2005. From day one, Achatz and Alinea received extraordinary attention and unprecedented accolades. The Chicago Tribune and Chicago magazine both awarded the restaurant four stars within months of opening, and the James Beard Foundation nominated Alinea as the Best New Restaurant in America within a year. In September 2005, The New York Times identified Achatz as the "next great American chef." In October a year later, Alinea received the coveted Five Diamond Award from AAA, and Ruth Reichl of Gourmet magazine declared Alinea the "Best Restaurant in America," an honor bestowed only once every five years. Under Achatz's leadership, Alinea continues to receive worldwide attention for its hypermodern, emotional approach to dining. In both 2007 and 2008, Alinea was named one of "The S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants" published by Restaurant magazine, and Achatz himself received the James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef in America award, the culinary equivalent of an Oscar, in 2008. Achatz has appeared on the Today show, CBS Sunday Morning, the Food Network, the Discovery Channel, and PBS, and has been featured in dozens of periodicals across the US and the globe including countries as far away as Sweden, Finland, Great Britain, Spain, Italy, the Philippines, and France.

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