Eureka Moments: Where Culinary Inspiration Comes From

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Michael Harlan Turkell


Sometimes the only thing better than finding inspiration yourself is seeing someone else overcome by it. And although we chefs might always be on the lookout for some revelation that will become our next dish, more important is the motivation that gets us cooking in the first place.

Imagine two young cooks. From a distance, I've been watching one cook I know, a guy who's not exactly at the bottom of the kitchen hierarchy, but climbing more slowly than most. I wouldn't say he's gotten ragged or burned out; let's just say that it's easy to lose oneself in a fog of ennui given the hours and days of repetitive action required by professional cooking. Sometimes it can be a matter of becoming so good at what you do that without the occasional fire under your butt, you get complacent. And then there are those cases where all one feels is the heat, and that simply leads to a sense of apathy, of cooking with a bad taste in one's mouth.

There's another cook who after struggling for the first few months in a high-stakes environment—stressed, frantic, and frustrated—finally seems to be hitting her stride. Suddenly, she moves with an air of confidence, which in turn generates awareness and excitement, and not least of all, better food.

These two cooks were both in need of that Eureka! moment, that short sharp shock of inspiration that fuels our sense of purpose.

These two cooks were both in need of that Eureka! moment, that short sharp shock of inspiration that fuels our sense of purpose. For the second cook, I think it just clicked after a singular triumph—one dish, one dinner service—which, however small, allowed the rest to fall into perspective. Or maybe it was an isolated disaster—something positive can be spun from that too.

For the first cook, it was his day off. Not a real day off, mind you, but a 14-hour shift as a stagaire in another kitchen. He'd sought my advice on what restaurants in town might allow him in for a day, and one particular place came up first. If I were a young line cook looking for a job in the city, I'd be casing this joint myself. These sorts of one-off internships happen every day all over the globe, regardless of whether there is a permanent job awaiting. Sometimes it's just good to get out and see what other chefs are doing.

The next day, I was curious to hear how it went. I don't know that I've ever seen someone so energized by an unpaid 10 a.m.-to-midnight shift in any kitchen. He recounted the day with that sense of excitement when you have so much to say that you don't know where to begin, so it all just pours out in random bits in fear that some detail might be forgotten. It was the topic of discussion du jour among all the cooks within earshot. By proxy, the whole crew was inspired. It's not like this guy is going to radically change his cooking based on what he saw; the important thing is that he saw it in the first place. Now he knows.


MORE ON FOOD AND INSPIRATION:
Gus Rancatore: Inventing Ice Cream Flavors
Jarrett Wrisley: Naming a Restaurant
Grant Achatz: Inspired in the Dark

I sometimes notice this wide-eyed sort of thing when we host our own stages; at least it's my hope that we can provide an insight of some kind. It's really about being receptive. Based on someone's level of experience or awareness, different people will see different things that apply to their world. It might be a new technique, the flavor of a sorbet, or how we interact as a team. It's about the big picture, but sometimes it's the smallest detail that stands out, a minor discovery that might lead to a path far longer.

These moments don't necessarily have to be life-changing. They sometimes get us through one day or a particular task, or provide the missing link that brings an old idea full circle. We remember vividly the moments that have altered our courses; when we think back on them, we recall with a certain romanticism the mood and atmosphere. The act of remembering them at all can be inspiring, as it transports you to a distinct time and place, a precise moment of "before" and "after."

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As executive pastry chef of New York's Le Bernardin, Michael Laiskonis was named Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2007 by the James Beard Foundation. His work has also helped the restaurant maintain four stars from The New York Times. More

As executive pastry chef of New York's Le Bernardin, Michael Laiskonis produces delicate desserts that are a flavorful balance of art and science, both contemporary and classic. Awarded Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2007 by the James Beard Foundation, he has also helped the restaurant maintain three stars from the esteemed Michelin Guide and four stars from The New York Times, in which Frank Bruni described the desserts as "sophisticated without being pretentious, multifaceted but not unduly fanciful."

In his five-year tenure as pastry chef at Tribute in Detroit, Pastry Art and Design twice named him one of the "10 Best Pastry Chefs in America." He has been at Le Bernardin since 2004. Eric Ripert, executive chef and co-owner, says, "Michael's sensibilities perfectly complement the Le Bernardin style of light, inventive, and elegant food."

Laiskonis has been featured in print, television, and radio appearances internationally. His consulting projects include an ongoing collaboration with the Ritz Carlton hotels in Grand Cayman, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, as well as work with the National Peanut Board, several pastry shops throughout Japan, and most recently, advisory positions with the Institute of Culinary Education and Starbucks. In 2008, Laiskonis became a featured contributor to Gourmet.com and participated in the launch of the Salon.com food page, and he was a contributor to Britain's Yes Chef! in 2009. He has also joined the ranks of chef-bloggers with two websites documenting his work, mlaiskonis.com and michael-laiskonis.com.

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