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.