Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Culinary Creativity: Chef Scott Hebert

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

Executive Chef Scott Hebert works at Troquet, a French-American restaurant in Boston on Boylston Street. I have previously given raves to Troquet and part of the pleasure of dining at Troquet is due to the culinary skill of Chef Hebert.

Growing up in central Connecticut, Scott knew at a very early age that he wanted to feel his hands on food, so he got a job at a butcher shop, and later a small French restaurant. The two experiences cemented his resolve, so he attended Newbury College for a culinary degree. Upon graduating, Scott worked at the highly respected Seasons at The Bostonian Hotel. Later, he moved to New York City to expand his horizons and ended up working side by side with some of the city’s biggest names, including David Burke and David Bouley. He became Executive Chef of Indigo, and later Chef de Cuisine at Veritas, where his cooking won a three-star review from the New York Times, and two stars from the Michelin Guide. In 2001, Scott and his wife Natalia moved to Boston and Scott joined the Troquet kitchen team. Thanks to his unwavering dedication, ability to cook with and for wine, and his dogged pursuit of excellence, he was recently named co-owner.

Now onto the interview--

How important is culinary creativity to you? Why is it important?
Creativity is the reason I chose cooking as a career. Making the same dishes every day, or just following a recipe, is not a challenge. Creating an entire menu based on the best products available on a given day … now that keeps cooking interesting.

What are your most significant inspirations for your culinary creativity? What makes those matters so inspiring?
I am usually inspired by customer feedback, and I am always trying to create new dishes or twists on familiar concepts, so that our regulars don't get bored with the menu. That in itself is motivating enough. I also enjoy sharing new ideas and techniques with staff; I find that it helps morale when they feel they are in a learning situation.

Where do you get your ideas for new recipes/dishes?
Most of the dishes are inspired by seasonal produce. I usually look at what is available and local (for the most part) and then I plan the menu. I really don't know where the ideas come from. Things evolve naturally by trial and error, although I try hard not to compromise the freshness or natural flavor of any ingredient.

What is your process of creating a new recipe or dish?
The process of creating a dish starts with two lists. The first is a list of available produce and proteins, or, several cuts from a whole animal. The next list is one of compatible flavor combinations. Then I use these flavors throughout the entire dish, whether it be in the sauce, the vegetable, the starch or the marinade. This is the point where trial and error begins.

Do other members of your staff assist with creating ideas for new recipes/dishes?
The kitchen crew is responsible for executing three recipes on a daily basis, usually from scratch. Their job usually involves simplifying my recipes and methods as the dish evolves. I usually allow the cooks some flexibility in their approach, unless I feel that the original concept of the dish is compromised by change.

How do you test new recipes/dishes?
We try the dish out as a special first, and if both staff and customer feedback are positive, then we put the dish on the menu.

What is the most difficult part of culinary creativity?
Creativity is the fun part of a chef’s job. The difficult part is making sure one’s ideas are executed properly. If it seems as if my cooks just can't execute a dish properly, then chances are that dish needs to be simplified. This is why some of Troquet’s simplest dishes are the most popular. Too many variables makes for bad food.

Do you ever experience “writer’s block,” an inability to be creative, and if so, how do you deal with it?
When I don't feel inspired to come up with new ideas, I don't fight it. I just go with things I am familiar with. For me, forcing yourself to come up with new ideas usually doesn't produce quality results.

I usually come up with specials late at night when I can't sleep, so I always keep a pad and paper near my bed to jot down ideas, so that I don't forget them in the morning.

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