Thursday, September 10, 2009

Culinary Creativity: Chef Peter Ungár-Part 2

(Check out my Introduction to the Creative Culinary series.)
(Read Part 1 of my Interview with Chef Peter Ungár)

How do you test new recipes/dishes?
Cooking is a continual evolution and learning experience. Due to the nature of my business, with Private Dining and Chef's Table events (rather than a daily restaurant), I never create the same dish twice. There is always a variation and an improvement. Therefore, I am always serving new dishes, and my guests are trying it for the first time. This can be risky, but can also produce some of the most exciting dishes. Once a concept receives too many varying opinions, the original concept and vision I may have first sought might be watered down. Therefore, I do rely heavily on my own culinary preferences and cooking instincts.

Baking and pastries, however, are entirely another realm. Whenever I decide to compose a dish with those kinds of components, I must do test run at least once, if not several times, to get it right. I am my own worst critic, so if I don't like it, I will not be serving it.

What is the most difficult part of culinary creativity?
The most difficult part about being creative with food is doing something original. It has happened so many times, that I feel proud of a certain dish, cooking technique, or flavor combination, which I feel is completely unique, only to see something frighteningly similar shortly thereafter. On the other hand, this is what pushes me to be as creative as possible, so I know for certain that my guests have never tried it before, and I am able to maintain that element of surprise.

Also, since my business is a private dining service, and not an established restaurant, I am lacking many of the technical gadgetry which I would absolutely love to have. I often have to resort to the next best thing in order to create the result I am expecting. Occasionally I end up with something even better than previously planned, but sometimes a certain concept has to be completely avoided since I do not have the appropriate equipment and space.

Do you ever experience “writer’s block,” an inability to be creative, and if so, how do you deal with it?
Although I will admit to experiencing "chef's block," I do believe that it may not actually exist. It is all a matter of determination and will. When "all the stars are aligned," ideas are flowing and menus are created. But when I have distractions and there is other pressing business or family issues to handle, the creative process can be stifled. The best way I deal with it to move on to other areas of a menu, and bounce around, until it begins to take shape enough to make me happy. A menu is never finished in the way I had originally planned for it to be, but is always better than what I had originally thought it would be.

When I really hit the wall with trying to come up with new ideas, I flip through any one of my several cookbooks and see what some of my favorite chefs have done in the past. That usually is enough to jump-start some suppressed ideas and helps blossom undeveloped concepts that I have not yet felt comfortable including in a menu.

I also keep a log of completely random ideas, just in case. Usually I write down ingredient combinations which are interesting and I might like to use - somewhere, somehow. For example, the black truffle and pistachio coulis, paired with the tomato and scallop terrine, was taken from my log. I had simply written, "blk truffle/pistachio" after reading about a dish in an El Bulli book. I knew I wanted to have scallops and black truffles served together. Then I thought about summer and wanting to serve tomatoes. Then, I tied it all together after looking through my log and seeing "blk truffle/pistachio." At that point, I still hadn't decided on a terrine. Looking through a Ducasse book reminded me of confit of tomato, which I have done several times before, but I was currently stuck thinking about raw tomatoes. It was then that I decided on creating the terrine with equally sized raw scallop slices and confit tomato petals.

Can you relate an interesting or unusual anecdote about the creation of a specific dish?
The above description goes with this question too. Another description of creating a dish is with the White Miso & Sake Torched Hamachi. Daikon, cucumber, nashi pear, wakame seaweed consommé, littleneck clam crouton, aged soy aïoli. I let my fish purveyor know that I really wanted to use hamachi whenever he could get some. Finally he let me know it was available. One of my original "signature" dishes is the miso marinated halibut steamed in sake. I knew I wanted to do something with similar flavors, but wanted to use a different technique. "Torching" sashimi is popular, so I decided to combine the miso and sake, and serve the fish raw, instead of steamed, and just brulée the marinade onto the fish.

Then I needed something light, acidic, and fresh to go with the rich fish. I have been wanting to do a version of a Korean cold summer noodle soup dish called "mul naengmyeon." I absolutely love this dish - as do all Koreans - and have always been wanting to transform it into something I may serve to my guests. The garnish for naengmyeon is cucumber, daikon, and Asian (nashi) pear. I took this component, made perfect little slices, pickled the daikon, and served it as a base for the hamachi. I knew I wanted more on the plate, but didn't know what yet. When I went to go buy the hamachi, I saw little neck clams that had just come in. That's when it struck me to shuck those, fry the clams, serve them in their shell, along with a shot of clam broth made from clarifying the clam juice, and simmered with wakame seaweed. Then mayo and fried clams are a great pair, and I still needed a sauce on the plate. So I made a fresh aioli, with an Asian twist of adding aged soy, instead of salt. Although I had been thinking about a hamachi dish for several months, the final presentation did not come together until the day of the dinner.

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