(Check out my Introduction to the Culinary Creativity series.)
(Read Part 1 of my Interview with Chef Matthew Barros.)
Where do you get your ideas for new recipes/dishes? What is your process of creating a new recipe or dish? Do other members of your staff assist with creating ideas for new recipes/dishes?
When creating dishes the first two things in my head are; what is the main ingredient going to be, and what is it I want to accomplish in the final dish? By doing these two simple steps I just built my building blocks for what is soon to come. It is very necessary to have focus when doing so. If not, I find myself experimenting with too many ingredients that don’t mix; so having structure and staying on track is key.
Next I go to brainstorming and get to the basics; what do I know about this item and have I ever worked with it before? Now if I have, I start there and if I am unaware of the product I must go to the books and do as much research to find out what the best way to prepare it is, what the best flavors are, and how to get the textures to coincide with them. This is where it can get a little difficult, however crucial, to train myself to know my ingredients well so I can mix and match at will, and to know all that I can about the products I have at hand, because there is no point of putting in all the time and effort into creating a dish if you cannot properly cook your product to its fullest potential or have all of your elements come together as one when the final dish is finally plated.
As chefs we need to always be thinking a few steps ahead and be aware of whether or not our actions make sense on the final dish. Does it have what I want, and does it show who I am when it is done? Now truthfully I am very blessed to be working with both Joanne Chang and Christopher Myers; mainly because since day one they have always had my back and have always been there for me to bounce questions and ideas off to them, in which they always guide me in the right direction both for my own knowledge and for the restaurant. Whenever an idea comes to mind I can run it by them, and they will let me know right off the bat what they like and what they don’t like; so, as explained before, they help build structure and focus for me to create new things.
How do you test new recipes/dishes? Relate an unusual or interesting anecdote about the creation of one of your dishes.
The next step for me is to get on the line and try out the recipes. After the first trial I’ll taste to see if what I really wanted to stand out is still the main feature, and that every other element in the dish complements each other, to make the final product work without being unbalanced.
For example, we recently put together a wok-charred baby octopus dish with grilled corn, slathered in sriracha butter. As I thought about the baby octopus, I knew right away I wanted the dish to remain simple. I know octopus can take on heavy flavors well, so started with a quick blanch in a flavorful fish fumet, made a blistered corn sambal with roasted red bell peppers, and made my sriracha butter. I started by trying the octopus on the grill, but didn’t like that, so I went to the wok, which would guarantee far more heat than the grill. I then grilled the corn, on the cob, and mixed the grilled corn with the sambal sriracha butter. After that all gelled, it was time to work on the plating. Once I have found what I like I'll run it by Joanne and Christopher to see what their thoughts are, to check that they like the direction that I’m going in or if it even fits in what we are doing in the restaurant.
Do you ever experience “writer’s block,” an inability to be creative, and if so, how do you deal with it?
When creating new dishes there is always a point of difficulty in answering questions such as: did the dish came out the way I intended it to, will the price point fit into the menu we have, and, most importantly, is it who we are? I find it very easy to mix and match flavors and textures, but the trick with creativity is, does what you’re doing make sense, and are your clients going to understand?
As said before I love simplicity, however, as chefs some of the simplest dishes are the hardest to make. If I just have 5 ingredients to work with, it may seem easy but experimenting to get all 5 ingredients cooked perfectly with the right technique, seasoning, and flavor all pulled together as one is sometimes difficult. Another issue you could run into is when you have everything going for you, and that one last aspect to finish the dish does not come to you. At this point it takes large amounts of time to go back to the books to research, re-plan, maybe take one thing out and add two completely new items, but still trying to keep it in the same direction as you started from can get frustrating. At these times there is nothing else to do other than trial and error. It is fun but can take time. When I am in a slump on paper, my favorite way to get out of the slump is to just cook and cook until I am back on track. After all, that’s really what it’s all about in the end; the creativity truly comes from the cooking.