Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Culinary Creativity: Chef Peter Ungár-Part 1

(Check out my Introduction to the Creative Culinary series.)

Chef Peter Ungár currently operates The Dining Alternative, a private dining service, where he comes to your home and prepares a special meal for you and your guests. Approximately once a month, he holds a Chef''s Table at his own home to showcase his culinary skills. These events, limited to twelve people, consist of a five-course meal with wine pairings. I have been to several of these dinners and they are fantastic, as good a meal as any you will find anywhere in the city. Plus, they are quite fun, a great social experience. You can read some of my prior posts about Peter and you might want to start here.

Chef Ungár began cooking at the age of 17 as an apprentice in one of the two French restaurants in Fort Worth, Texas. He then attended Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration and eventually moved to France, securing a job at the Relais & Châteaux, Le Chalet du Mont d’Arbois, in Megève. Upon returning to the U.S., Peter went to work at the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston. In 2003, Peter opened The Dining Alternative, though he continued to work at various establishments in such as Truly Jörg’s Pâtisserie, John Dewar’s Butcher Shop and Craigie Street Bistrot. Peter is also a Chef/Instructor at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts.

How important is culinary creativity to you? Why is it important?
For me, culinary creativity is essential in cooking. This is not to say that every chef must be unique in their cooking. Many chefs are successful cooking dishes that have been around for ages, and just do it better than anyone else. Personally speaking, cooking is an outlet for my creativity, therefore it is central to why I cook. Envisioning a unique dish, bringing it to life, and then seeing and hearing the reactions from my guests gives me unparalleled satisfaction.

The hospitality industry, and cooking in particular, is one of the most competitive and crowded industries in the world. Many people think they can cook, few can do it well, and only a very small percentage can do it exceptionally. I strive to be in the last category, and the only way to get there is by creating food that is truly singular. It must be something that not only my guests have never tried before, but were simply not expecting. The element of surprise is key, and that is where creativity plays its most crucial role. When the guest is caught off guard about a certain taste, texture, or aroma, it pulls them closer into the dining experience - and it becomes just that: an experience, instead of a meal.

What are your most significant inspirations for your culinary creativity? What makes those matters so inspiring?
Inspiration can come from anywhere at any time. So the first step is being open to it and ready to receive it. Sometimes I will be on an outing with my family, and a concept for a dish will hit me out of the blue. I'll recite it to my wife so I won't forget it. But if only all my ideas came that easily! Since I am still fairly young, and have a lot to learn and experience, I look to my culinary idols to see what they are doing. I'm not a culinary trendsetter - yet. So I like to learn from those who are setting the standard at the gastronomic forefront. Of course, if I simply copied their work, I wouldn't be creative or unique. So I may just use their concepts to help develop my own ideas and style of cooking.

Other sources of inspiration come from my daily eating and cooking habits. It could be a Hungarian dish my mother prepares or a Korean dish my mother-in-law has made. I've even developed ideas while forced to create food for my sons to eat - which may have involved processing an ingredient in a way I've never thought of before - but they ate it, which was all that mattered at the time!

Where do you get your ideas for new recipes/dishes?
The initial concept for a new recipe or dish usually begins with a key ingredient, which I would really like to work with and serve to my guests. Of course, my guests' satisfaction is always at the top of my mind. I believe that if I am excited about a certain ingredient or dish, my guests will be too.

Since I cook strictly with the seasons, often I am restricted to what is available right now. This practice, in itself, makes the dishes I create more appealing, since food in season naturally tastes better. So sometimes a walk through my local farmers’ market or the seasonal produce at the grocery will give me plenty of ideas. The food that is sitting there is saying, "cook me - I'm in season." Then it's just a matter of figuring out appropriate techniques and appealing combinations.

What is your process of creating a new recipe or dish?
The process can start any number of different ways. If there is a particular ingredient I would really like to use, then I jot it down and see how the rest of the menu may evolve which will, in turn, develop that dish with my key ingredient. I always create menus instead of dishes, since I never simply serve one dish, rather a whole series of dishes, which all must complement each other and create a harmonious culinary experience for the guest. As the entire menu evolves, ingredients may get added, omitted, or shifted around so it makes more sense for the dining guest.

Do other members of your staff assist with creating ideas for new recipes/dishes?
I always welcome input from my staff. I particularly ask for their opinions when a certain dish just doesn't sit right with me. Sometimes I get so emotionally involved with the menu, that it's hard for me to think differently, and then a quick suggestion - and often a simple omission - all of a sudden creates the balance and flow I was looking for, yet was eluding me until then. My wife, more than anyone else, has an uncanny ability to know what I would like to have in a certain dish, even when I am having trouble coming to that same conclusion.

The only exception to this is during service. Once the dinner begins, the menu is written in stone. We can hypothesize and theorize all we want leading up to service, but when it comes time to cook, plate, and serve the food, there can be absolutely no descending opinions about how something should be cooked or plated. At that point, it is too late, and if they have any comments, save them until after we are completely finished with the night, and we can then discuss it in hindsight.

Part 2 of this Interview will be posted tomorrow.

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