On Tuesday, April 17, 2018, Symrise led a private roundtable discussion in Portland, Oregon with a select group of 2018 StarChefs Portland Rising Stars. Symrise’s VP of Marketing, Emmanuel Laroche, led the session, asking the panel a variety of questions, and one subject that was particularly interesting and robust was the topic of innovation — along with creativity and handling tradition — in their work. The panel consisted of five major individuals in the Portland food community: Chef Justin Woodward of Castagna; Chef Bonnie Morales of Kachka; Mixologist Angel Teta of Ataula; Pastry Chef Maya Erickson of Langbaan; and Chef and Co-Owner Earl Ninsom of Hat Yai and PaaDee.

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They spoke at length about their innovation process — more specifically, where do the individuals on the panel find their sources of inspiration? Turns out it comes from a variety of places: their unique memories; trying new things and challenging themselves; looking to local PNW ingredients; and discoveries made during travel. Woodward was the first to volunteer his observations: “If you’re standing still, then you’re not moving forward. Challenging yourself to do something that you haven’t done – that’s one of my major sources of inspiration. And sometimes that means going backwards, doing something more simple.”

Erickson remarked “My process has changed pretty dramatically since I started at Langbaan, maybe because this is really the first time I’ve ever been making Thai food.” She has changed her whole process completely, and uses PNW ingredients to create what is, at the heart of Langbaan, traditional Thai food that demands a level of respect along with innovation. Ninsom added that memorizing flavors and ingredients is a big part of the beginning of his creative process, “My whole process starts with remembering what I’ve eaten. I actually memorize it and that’s a tool I use to I create something. If you make something familiar like a curry — ask yourself how you will make that different.”

Inspiration can serve as fuel for creativity, but is there such a thing as taking things too far? “That’s when the art comes in,” remarks Morales. She spoke about a classic beet salad “that you’ll find on every Russian restaurant menu,” and about her particular changes (smoking the beets, making the vinaigrette out of caramelized onions) that are innovative yet don’t distract from the essence of the dish. She is able to make these decisions, too, because she has more autonomy over the creative process and doesn’t have to justify them to a board, as she might have had to do in her previous life as a designer (though she does value feedback).

Related: 4 Unusual Ingredients To Add To Your Flavor Repertoire

Teta admits that she did not start out working with Spanish food, but her husband’s food memories make a big impact. Her own travels have inspired her, especially with the classics. “I’m inspired by looking around. I travel a lot and take inspiration from the classics —like the Margarita — and from people’s reactions to what they are drinking.”

Another intriguing related element had to do with respect one has for the intersection of tradition and innovation. Morales remarked, “I want to make sure I always have reverence for the place the dish is from.” Others echoed this and added their interest in being true to a dish, and not to change things just or the sake of change. They agreed that it’s also important to give credit where credit is due and above all, the food must give pleasure to the eater.

With all this in mind, Portland is in good hands when it comes to finding ambitious and comforting food that is, above all, delicious.

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