The word “inspiration” may seem too impractical to a chef, as though they can afford to sit around waiting for the muse to strike. But the reality is that for the modern chef, coming up with new ideas is a far more pragmatic process than that. There’s a separation—both in terms of scheduling time, and in terms of working in a space other than your restaurant kitchen—in order to break new ground.
Scheduling creativity may sound like an oxymoron, but renowned chefs like Ferran Adrià and René Redzepi, as well as Rising Stars like Pastry Chef Chris Ford, are doing just that. And regardless of the type of space, it’s clear that when it comes to creating new dishes and experimenting, the same space where you sweat through service might not be the best choice when it comes to developing new ideas.
Crown prince of high-concept and experimental cuisine, Ferran Adrià and his Barcelona workshop El Taller have been synonymous with innovation since its opening in 2000. And the ideas that came out of this workshop have had a funny way of trickling down through the culinary ranks and emerging on restaurant menus halfway across the globe. Back when we visited in 2006, it was fruit pasta and yogurt balls. Fruit pasta (or spud pasta) is still going (Richard Blais prepared a sweet potato pasta on Top Chef Masters recently).
At the 2011 Madrid Fusion, when the world was chatting about the closure of El Bulli, Adrià announced that the legendary restaurant would morph into a foundation for experimentation and a center for creativity. Not every idea will end up on the menu of the world’s most famous restaurant (which will be open in some very limited capacity), but given Adrià’s well-documented generosity with his ideas and recipes, and his cult-like following, no doubt hundreds of dishes and culinary concepts will evolve from the research done there. The take away here is that separating your creative space from your restaurant kitchen provides fertile ground for new ideas, and obviously not that we should all go out and get our own multi-million dollar El Taller's.
Instead of building a lab to serve Noma alone, Chef René Redzepi partnered with Claus Meyer’s corporation, Nordea-fonden, and Rose Poultry. After a topic is chosen by the advisory board (made up of chefs, academics, and scientists) the lab team explores through trial and error everything it can about a topic. For the recent topic of seaweed, they looked at different cooking methods, how health benefits alter with heat, and sundry other seaweed-related knowledge pertinent to Nordic cuisine.
Although the techniques developed at Nordic Food Lab may land at the table at Noma, whose staff often joins the experiments, they also have wider implications for other corporations and restaurants, as well as the perception of Nordic cuisine. Compared with El Taller, it’s a less linear journey from inspiration and experimentation to the plate, but this converted boat, with its work stations on wheels, is sure to develop ideas that are felt in the food world. Since their opening in 2009, no groundbreaking discoveries have taken the world by storm, but that’s hardly surprising given that two years in research terms is just a drop in the bucket. The end game here seems to be furthering knowledge within the ranks of Nordic cuisine.
A creative space has some similarities to an inspiration board, only with a slightly less goofy implications. For Chef Ford—currently in transition between Stefan and Victoria Trummer’s Trummer’s on Main in Clifton, Virginia, and RJ Cooper’s Rogue 24—the inspiration board was an act of necessity. With Rogue 24 still under construction, Ford has no access to the kitchen to think through ideas for the menu. So he converted his dining room into an office-cum-lab, “not for cooking but for the growth of ideas.”
Ford surrounds himself with sketchpads and his iPad, all full of ideas that he’s developing. But instead of jumping straight to putting them into practice, he likes to form a dish concept first. “I like to map it out, so I definitely sit and think—I usually start with one ingredient; then I have an app on the iPad called Think, sketch, [flow].” This app allows the user to trace an idea, so Ford maps out the plate components, “kind of like a storyline of the dessert.” Working through a concept away from the cacophony of a restaurant kitchen yields better results for him. “I work much better when it’s quieter,” says Ford. Apart from the noise factor, the space where your focus inevitably turns to service is not ideal for inspiration. In your own creative space, be it home or a workshop, “you don’t have to worry about service.”
Chefs have vastly different job descriptions these days. We can all look back with nostalgia (or relief) at the days when chefs cooked every night, didn’t have a PR rep, and never appeared on television. While we could analyze how the hell we got here, maybe the better question is: what does the future of the chef look like now that the industry’s top chefs are in the business of R&D and education? Now that chefs have labs, workshops, or even simple rooms set aside for inspiration, has the role of a chef changed? Is the R&D chef an artist of the chef world, with his workshop like a studio and the restaurant the gallery for displaying his latest works? Perhaps chef labs—like the foams and fruit caviars—will end up trickling down the ranks too, with chefs from all walks of life working on their latest menu concept in the dedicated R&D room at home or next to the walk-in.