This year’s StarChefs International Chef Conference (ICC) focused on Open Source Cooking: The New Era of Collaboration and Connectivity (http://www.starchefs.com/cook/events/icc/2015). In the true spirit of the company “always inspiring more,” Symrise hosted a private roundtable discussion focusing on inspiration, influence and innovation. Both top chefs and leaders in the food and beverage industry took part in the event led by Emmanuel Laroche, Vice President of Marketing and Consumer Insights for Symrise.
Participants included Ruben Garcia of ThinkFoodGroup and minibar (Washington, DC), Chef Johnny Spero formerly of minibar, Chef Andrew Whitcomb of Colonie (Brooklyn, NY), cookbook author and Ideas in Food blogger Alexander Talbot, and Top Chef and Top Chef Masters contestant Chef Bryan Voltaggio.
A topic emerged early on in the discussion, as the chefs agreed on one thing—innovation in the kitchen sparks from a combination of experience and collaboration, with a clear focus on something a little surprising—themselves.
“I cook for myself,” said Garcia. “If I can’t please myself, I can’t please anyone else.”
Talbot seconded the opinion, adding, “That’s the smartest thing anyone here can say. Creating something new is an obstacle. If all you think about is new, you put blinders on. Cook something that makes you happy. Cook what you want to cook.”
Pleasing the consumer is still a big part of the equation, but with chef innovation comes diner education. “Burgers are on every menu,” stated Garcia. “How long are we going to cook burgers? It is our job as a chef to educate people. It’s our responsibility. It’s going to take time, you are going to lose guests, but you will gain new ones. We have to raise the level of expectations; we have to raise the quality of our dishes. A menu has to be balanced.”
But where do these new, balanced dishes come from? Voltaggio was the first to mention how often he was influenced by his own experiences. “Most of the new dishes on the menu at Volt (Frederick, MD) and Range (Washington, DC) come from a need or want to create something. I am influenced by many different things: memories, ingredients, new information.”
Spero, who just returned from a seven-month culinary quest to Spain, admitted he felt he was getting complacent in his previous position. “Traveling is important. I wanted to taste and see different things, and I was inspired by this ‘new’ Spain movement. So I quit my job and went to Spain. I pushed myself to get out of my comfort zone. I wanted to put myself in other people’s kitchens. I kept a moleskin of ideas, and returned with 90 new ones.”
Whitcomb, whose kitchen philosophy focuses on sustainability, revealed much of his inspiration stems from a combination of what’s available and learning more about an ingredient’s history. “I’m taking a lot of notes, and really paying attention to everything. If you pick a carrot, for example, you don’t want to just think about the carrot. I’m thinking about how I can use those tops for something. A farmer recently sent me horseradish. Which meant going right to the history books to really get to know the product and how it can be used. It may not be something I can use right now, but I can build a foundation for my pantry, and use it as inspiration later on.”
Garcia echoed Whitcomb’s feelings on reference, adding, “When it comes to creativity in the kitchen, one percent is creativity; something that happens out of the blue. The other 99% is reference, knowledge and experience.”
Talbot emphasized that you can’t really have the creativity without the reference and foundation. The chefs also pointed out that another key component to innovation is knowing what’s already been done in their own kitchens.
“You have to keep your successes and your failures so you can look back. Even with your failures, you can learn something,” said Spero.
Voltaggio, who led a presentation on kitchen collaboration with Chefs Mattie McGhee (Range) and Graeme Ritchie (Volt) later on in the ICC lineup, mentioned he was inspired working with other chefs because he felt it encouraged his own creativity.
Garcia took it a step further: “Creating a network of everyone involved, so everyone has access, everyone can make changes and additions, builds a learning community. We really should be looking at it as a chef community. Innovation isn’t just about what you can do in your restaurant. It’s about what you can add to your community.”