Eureka Moments: Where Culinary Inspiration Comes From


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.

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."

I've had so many little such sparks that I've no doubt forgotten the majority of them. But off the top of my head, some grand moments, and some just slightly less so...

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.

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