I didn’t become the cook that I am today over night. A lot of experiences have helped to shape where I am today. I learned as much, if not more, from the bad as the good.
The first years of cooking for me consisted mostly of absorbing recipes and techniques as fast as possible. I went from zero kitchen experience to a master of my domain. I pushed myself to learn everything I could and then wanted more. In that time, it was about the basics. A lot of how to do something or when to do something. In the second kitchen I entered, it was more of the same, but intensely. An even higher pressure Michelin driven environment that taught me more precise and complicated techniques. These first handful of years created a baseline of knowledge. I worked for stable companies that had their systems down and their ideas in place. I didn’t create my own things. I created within the parameters required of the restaurant’s standards. It wasn’t until I took my first job leading a pastry program solo that I started to develop recipes that were mine. I had to create a set of questions for myself that would help form a recipe.
Now, for me, asking myself these questions while I work on a dish is an exercise. I’ve learned that it helps my process. And not everyone will work this way. When I started, those questions looked like the following:
What’s in season? What do I like? What do I know how to do well? What do I want to learn how to do? What would I like to learn how to do better? How do I make it look good? Taste good?
As I worked, and developed my own style, more questions arose:
How do I make the dish balanced? Do I have the tools I need to make this possible? If I don’t, what tools can I use to make it possible? Or, should I rethink the execution? For example, if I wanted to make lemon meringue pie, but pie tins weren’t around- could I make a lemon meringue parfait in a jar and have it be just as delicious? What savory or unexpected element could I add to make this dish special? So it’s not just a lemon meringue pie like all of the others. Even in pastry, I thought: There should be balance. Sweet, salt, bitter, umami, etc. Should there be variations in texture? How does this work in terms of service? Can it be executed with this precision by others, multiple times a night? Can we take something humble and make it something spectacular? Does it have to be sweet to be dessert?
Do you notice, that all of these questions are “how’s” and “what’s”?
Most of these questions boil down to two:
1. What do you want to make?
2. How are you going to make it?
In recent years, I have found that “why” has snuck in more and more often to my recipe process.
Why is x ingredient important? Why is it important that it be : (complicated/different or simple/approachable etc)? Are all of the steps that we put into it something that makes enough of an impact to be valued against the cost of making it? Who is going to experience that value? Is it the chef, the line cook, the guest? Is there going to be a lot of waste in this dish? Why? Is there something we can plan to do with the waste so it is no longer wasteful?
I ask myself questions about the balance of artistry vs. labor. What kind of an impact that labor has on the staff. Does this labor encourage learning and excitement, or frustration and exhaustion? Or both? And is that okay? Who does the artistry benefit?
3. Why are we making this?
I like to think that as I grow as a cook, I am also growing as a leader. Thinking beyond myself and beyond creating a dish in a vacuum. The questions that I used to ask haven’t gone away. They have developed, become more precise and refined to the kind of food I want to focus on. There is knowledge and experience that has shaped what I ask and how I answer. There are new questions that ask for more thoughtful answers. To be honest- sometimes it is still important for me to take time to brainstorm a dish in a vacuum, without all of the “whys” being at the forefront of my mind. My creativity is a skill, like a muscle that must be used and challenged in order to stay strong. I like to think that asking myself “Why” can only add to the challenge and to the balance of the kind of cook that I want to be.
Finally, I want to mention the question I constantly ask about a dish before I put it in front of a guest : Is it delicious? It seems pretty obvious, but just take a step back from all of the thinking and planning and sit down at a table like a real person and eat the dish. Not just a bite. Is it delicious? Is it enjoyable? Would you want to eat it again?
I hope that I can answer some of your questions. I hope that by sharing my experiences, that I can help to enrich yours. I hope your recipe brainstorming time is fruitful, challenging, and creates joy.