There was that dish at Pierre Gagnaire, whose contents I no longer recall, that amazed me so much I nearly burst into laughter.
Blueberry pie and coffee at a picnic table in Massachusetts.
Breakfast at the Tsukiji market in Tokyo, of raw fish so fresh it was still moving.
Albert Adria knew who I was.
Strolling the garden at the French Laundry between courses, peeking into the kitchen and noticing how quiet it was. After dinner, seeing the word "finesse" posted above the kitchen door.
The day I bought a copy of the Larousse Gastronomique.
Michael Harlan Turkell
Pad Thai with dried cuttlefish and banana leaf in Bangkok, while sitting on plastic patio furniture a few feet away from bustling traffic, under an umbrella in the pouring rain.
The first time I wrote "Happy Birthday" on a cake; I got a one-dollar tip.
Cooking at a winery in Napa Valley: We needed a lemon, and I was told, "Just go outside and pick one."
Skate sautéed in goose fat with a squab jus. Lunch at Le Bernardin in 1998.
Meeting Emeril Lagasse some 10 years ago, and him saying, "I'll be hearing about you in a few years."
The first time I've ever tasted raw pulp from a cacao bean.
Age 16, away from home for the summer, calling my mom to ask how to bake a potato.
You'll notice that the great majority of these moments were the result of travel. It's true, our senses are hyper-acute when we leave our familiar surroundings, so it makes sense that we would notice more. But most of us, myself included, can't just hop on a plane for France or Spain or Thailand whenever we feel like it. And I remind myself all the time how lucky I am to live in a place like New York City, where there is sometimes too much stimuli. Again, it can be even more special finding inspiration when we aren't actually looking for it, like the cook who found her way in the monotony of chopping vegetables.
If you can't get to San Sebastián or Yountville or Bray, at least go out to dinner down the street. Or go to the supermarket with a pair of fresh eyes. Talk to your ingredients; listen to what they may have to say in response. If there's a food you can't stand eating, force yourself to try it again and ask yourself why. Buy a new kitchen tool and learn how to use it. Plant a garden, or at least a pot of herbs, and consider the processes at work. Learn how to make bread, then really study its inner architecture. Practice cleaning a fish and take notice of the anatomy. Intentionally "break" a sauce or ganache and see if you can fix it. Make a complex dish from the Alinea book or a classic from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. As long as it's something you've never done before, the source really doesn't matter. And all of this need not just apply to professional cooks; I'd like to think everyone could use a positive little nudge into the kitchen.
Look for the answers to your own questions. Then turn every answer into another question. Challenge yourself, if not once a day, then once a week. It may or may not change your life, but it certainly will make your day way more interesting.
This post also appears on michael-laiskonis.com.