(Check out my Introduction to the Culinary Creativity series. I am continuing this series into 2010.)
Burtons Grill Executive Chef Denise Baron was backpacking through Panama in 2004 when she got a call from her older sister, Amy, who was getting married and wanted Denise to return home for the wedding. Baron agreed, a fortuitious turn of events, as at the wedding she met Kevin Harron, who was opening a new restaurant with vetera restaurateurs Kevin Rowell and Pat Gordon. Baron had been been the Executive Chef for Houston’s Restaurants plus earned a culinary degree from Johnson & Wales. Before the wedding day was over, Harron had offered Baron the chance to become the Executive Chef for his new restaurant.
Since then, Baron has created a menu that bridges flavor and presentation and emphasizes honest ingredients and simple cooking methods. The philosophy at Burtons Grill reflects Baron’s wholehearted embrace of using top quality ingredients, classic, fresh flavors and uncomplicated cooking techniques to create a memorable dining experience.
“When I create new menu items for the month, I think about the flavors and how they pair in the mouth and how the guests are going to feel after they’ve eaten them,” Baron relates. “I want people to remember their experience at Burtons Grill and keep coming back for it time after time.”
Now onto the interview--
How important is culinary creativity to you? Why is it important?
I think creativity is important but, creativity takes numerous forms. You can put a million edible flowers on a plate, but if the flavor profiles don’t work you’re not really being creative. Yes, you eat first with your eyes, then aromatics, but let’s not forget taste. To me, creativity is presenting the highest quality product available via my interpretation of the item based on my experiences and training. We as chefs need to keep in mind that people are primarily eating this food…so the flavors need to work well together. Moreover, we need to be conscious of what we put on our customers plate, not only by design but by content as well. This is my sense of creativity.
What are your most significant inspirations for your culinary creativity? What makes those matters so inspiring?
It’s a complicated question. When something is a hobby you have other distractions. But, when it is your job, I feel like it is always front-of-mind. I find inspiration everyday through the people I interact with (customers, other Chefs, Purveyors etc.) The places I’ve traveled, and every other sense I have. I can be walking through a fresh market and a smell can give birth to a dish; or I can simply think of trying a new flavor combination. I am always thinking of food and what my next creation will be.
Where do you get your ideas for new recipes/dishes?
Everywhere! I myself am not only a Chef, but a “foodie” – I love to eat. I love seeing what others are doing and researching new trends and techniques. I can never get my hands on enough cookbooks, food magazines etc. I also love researching online trends and “the why” they begin e.g. – Small Plates Communal Dining, Gluten Free etc. Every dish has a history, it came from a “need” , “desire” or “movement” spurred by something rooted in our culture. In my case, my ideas come from my travels, my peers, my desire to create and my innate need to see our customers smile!
What is your process of creating a new recipe or dish?
The first step is right outside your window, seasonality. When I create specials or menu changes they are usually a month in advance so I am always thinking ahead. I think about what is in season in my region and if there are gaps in our menu presentation. Should we have more hearty dishes, go lighter etc. Once I answer those questions then I brainstorm ideas. I speak with my vendors to see about availability, quality and pricing. If all that looks good then I go ahead and start developing a recipe. I am a self proclaimed perfectionist, so once I enter the kitchen to begin development it can be a lengthy process until I am satisfied. Next, I call in my tasting team and I present a food show of proposed specials. We look, eat and evaluate what I have made and decide if it can be better, easy to execute in a busy restaurant and how prep intense it is. If all those are a green light then I go to the store level and roll out the new recipes to my chefs and prep cooks in each location.
Do other members of your staff assist with creating ideas for new recipes/dishes?
Yes- I offer a $100 bonus to any person employed by our organization who creates a recipe that gets put on the menu! I can’t tell you how many of the bonuses I have racked up! (That was a Joke I am exempt). Seriously, in our organization we believe that people are more involved when they help to create something or take ownership and pride in what they do. We really advocate the flow of information both ways. I am always soliciting ideas from others.
How do you test new recipes/dishes?
I will pick a store and make a recipe batch and verbalize it. Once I show the new items to the wait staff I can get a good sense of if it is going to sell or not. If they don't like it or are not behind it then I need to figure out why and how I can make them believe in it. We also strive for 100% table visits especially when there is a new item on the table so we can get our guests feedback as well.
What is the most difficult part of culinary creativity?
Simply put, trying to please everyone as well as myself with the work I have done.
Do you ever experience “writer’s block,” an inability to be creative, and if so, how do you deal with it?
Yes- When that happens I look back at what I have already created and this may help create a new idea or spur a twist on a previous version of a recipe. If I am in a real slump then I take a mini food vacation. Yes, I go to Boston and New York City, but I also travel everywhere. Sometimes the biggest ideas come from the smallest corners of the world.
Relate an unusual or interesting anecdote about the creation of one of your dishes.
Last spring I planted some snap peas. As they were growing I snipped the tops from a few and ate them. My mouth lit up with the first taste of Spring. I thought that the pea tendrils would add a unique flavor for our first Spring salad. I started thinking about my other specials and at the time they were focusing around Cinco de Mayo, so I wanted the salad to be both bright and match the other flavor profiles on my menu. I chose to pair the pea tendrils with some baby spinach so there was a leafy green. I added mango for a sweet and almost “puckering” flavor, avocado for a creamy texture and to complement the mango. I decided to add more texture with both fried tortilla strips and toasted pepitas. The pepitas also added a different level of creaminess that only a nut or seed carries. I then added grape tomatoes for “pop” and acidity - tossed it all in a mustard vinaigrette which I felt would complement all the ingredients and tie together the sweet, tart and creaminess. In the tasting phase with my team, everyone loved it but, nobody could put their finger on the pea tendril taste. In turn, it became the most popular salad of the season in our restaurants. And all this from a simple Spring snip of a plant.