Wednesday, September 3, 2008
Jen and I are teaching a class at the Epicurean Classic this year. It's a class that will focus on what will be available at the farmer's market and how to prepare those items. What we want to teach everyone is how chefs think when they are trying to put together new dishes. Since I haven't spent much time thinking about how I come up with new things I thought I would work it out here before I step onto the stage and make a fool of myself. This post may be a bit choppy since I'm literally working it out as I type. Every chef goes about this differently. For some it is very easy. Take Jen for instance. We can sit together for a few moments and she will spit out a dozen ideas before I have time to write them down. I, on the other, struggle with ideas. For me it's best to go to the market and wonder around for a while hoping for some inspiration. Sounds like my life. Just wonder around and something typically shows up. OK, so I'm just going to take this piece by piece. What are the elements needed for creative cooking? 1. Develop a philosophy of cooking. This forms the foundation of all your cooking endeavors. All your decisions will be made according to this philosophy. What do you believe cooking should be or do? This takes years to develop, but the good news is that in order to do so it also takes years of cooking trial and error. You can't simply pull this out of thin air. It has to be a work in progress. It's an ever evolving process and one that never stops. Pick a starting point and work from there. My philosophy of cooking is simple. Food needs to stay in it's most natural form when ever possible and cooked in the simplest way. When ever I am looking for a new dish from the myriad of ingredients available to me the over all question I ask is how to keep those ingredients natural. I have found that one's philosophy of cooking stems from ones world view. How you see yourself and your world will effect how you cook. 2. Think in terms of contrast and balance, yin and yang, if you will. Each dish has to have contrast and balance. If you have something acidic then there has to be something that will balance it. If there is sweet then it has to be balanced. The creativity comes in when we try to find new ways to bring balance to the dish. Creamy balanced with crunchy. Take a plate of tomatoes. By themselves they are wonderful, but introduce something to balance the natural acidity of a tomato and the plate goes to a new level. 3. Always keep aesthetics in mind. What ever the dish is you are cooking it must be pleasing to all of your senses. Work on seeing the finished plate in your head before you even start. Can you see it? Can you taste it? Does it look nice? Does it taste good? This takes lots of practice, but a skill well worth developing as it will save you loads of time and money in the long run. A dish needs to present well also. Don't neglect this aspect. Does it excite you when you see it or smell it? Is the dish over all aesthetically appealing? As I said, this is something done before you ever begin cooking it and it's something that takes loads of practice. 4. Everything, and I mean everything, in a dish and on the plate has to have meaning and purpose. If you can't justify the presence of an ingredient then said ingredient has no place in the dish or on the plate. Don't add cilantro if cilantro servers no purpose. The whole idea that if we just add more crap it will have to taste good is wrong. In fact, less is better when cooking is concerned. Constantly question your every move. Do you need that? Can this be made better by...? Question, question, question. 5. Start storing up in your memory food combinations and use these as a reference point when walking down the isles. For instance, I know tomatoes and rabbit go well together. I also know rabbit and chocolate go well together, I wonder how tomatoes and chocolate will work. Now, I've never put these two together before but I would be willing to bet the two will work if tweaked enough. Start stretching your imagination when you cook and remember, or at least start a card library, what ingredients work with each other. Make associations between ingredients and use those to your advantage. You will find after some time you will be making connections instinctively. 6. Approach your food poetically. Let yourself go and don't be constrained by conventions. 7. Learn when to break the rules, but do so only if you have good reason. Most of us remember when fish and red wine was a big no no. Now it's perfectly acceptable. Someone said it was a silly idea and served fish with red wine and found it to be a fantastic combination. 8. Read, read, read and then read some more. Buy good cook books by good chefs and read them. Don't waste your time on silly cook books that have no value but find a chef you like and read her/his cook books. Don't just read the recipe and copy them but try to understand why something was done. Why did they do step 3 before step 4? What purpose does the pinch of nutmeg have in this particular dish. I read cook books constantly looking for new ideas and new approaches. I regularly find new techniques for old ways I am putting into practice from a cook book I just read. Read the introductions to these books. Read all of the chef's notes. Try to get behind the passage and understand what is being said. Apply what you read to your shopping trips. I read how Batalli does this or that, I wonder if I can apply it to this eggplant? Reading great cook books is the simplest way to get a cooking education without having to spend years in professional kitchens and a ton of money in cooking school. Let the chef/author be your teacher. These 8 items are a good starting place to cooking more creatively. There is so much to learn about food you will never learn it all. Even for professional chefs who spend their entire lives cooking the task of learning is never finished. In fact, I just picked up a better way to poach an egg from a Gordon Ramsay video off Youtube the other day that I will be applying next time I poach eggs. It's easy to get overwhelmed by how little we know about cooking, myself included. The best strategy is to just cook and let the pots fall as they may.