Between the six chefs, restaurateurs and bartenders at Symrise’s private roundtable discussion about innovation and creativity in the food world, the men had more than 100 years of combined experience and expertise. At the 2017 StarChefs International Chef Congress (ICC) in New York City, the guests were Ken Oringer, who’s best known his restaurant Toro, which has multiple locations around the world; chef and NYC restaurateur David Burke; Alon Shaya of Shaya in New Orleans; Wylie Dufresne of Du’s Donuts and previously Alder and wd~50; mixologist Toby Maloney of The Violet Hour; and the Parisian pastry chef Pierre Hermé of macaron fame. It was a gathering of people who are not only some of the best in their fields, but who have been for years. How do they continue to stay on top of what’s new, and from where do they draw their inspiration?
Burke was the first to answer, leading with a joke about how he’s older, who didn’t hesitate to say that it’s difficult to stay edgy and in-the-know. While not a current example, he started with an anecdote about knowing not just your audience’s tastes, but also their preferred dining experiences.
“When you’re at the River Café, a fine dining restaurant on the water, you think of lobster and butter,” he said. “But how do you serve that to people wearing a thousand dollar cufflinks who don’t want to get butter everywhere?” When facing this dilemma, he chose to make a raw lobster and butter purée and lemon tempura rings, which delivered on all fronts.
“He’s totally right,” Dufesne chimed in. “You have to be ready for creativity when it comes. My mom always said that creativity isn’t linear.” Oringer also agreed, saying that you have to put yourself out there and take a risk. “You don’t know what hardboiled eggs with white chocolate tastes like,” he said. “Until you try something, you don’t know.”
Shaya, while he nodded along with what everyone else was saying, wanted to bring up a sentiment that was especially pertinent at this year’s Congress: nostalgia. At Shaya, he wanted to create a dish that reminded him of the caramelized bits at the bottom of the pan of his grandmother’s stuffed cabbage, so he modernized and reimagined the dish. Taking whole heads of cabbage and sous-viding them with butter, chile and spices, and then roasting them, he was able to create a dish that “reminded [him] of home.”
However, not all inspiration comes from within. For example, Hermé spoke about working with designers, architects and painters, for example, which gave him “lots of personal enrichment.” While interested in what’s happening in the world of food, Hermé likes to observe concepts and ideas in other creative fields, and think of how he can apply them to innovating with pastry aesthetic and flavors.
Maloney also spoke to his specific niche in the food world, bartending, and how for him, creativity is all about limiting himself.
“There’s not as much you can do with drinks, so I went to the basics,” he said. “For me, creativity is about structure. It can flourish more with less.” In the words of Hermé, “creativity is a mindset,” and the creator ultimately decides their approach and goals.
With the popularity of Instagram and customer review website like Yelp, though, it’s becoming more and more difficult to decipher what draws people to restaurants nowadays. Chefs “used to only be judged by a few [food critics], but now people who don’t even try [a restaurant’s food] can drive traffic,” Dufresne elaborated. The question is, should chefs and restaurateurs care?
“We’d be silly to not care about millennials and Instagram,” Oringer responded immediately. “In Asia, people will come in just to Instagram. We’re chefs but we’re also businessmen.” Hermé, while not in total accordance with Oringer, shared sentiments. “I don’t change my concept but I do plate for photos,” he said.
However, Burke made a statement with which everyone could agree: “It’s always going to come down to taste.” While appearance is more important than ever, influencers won’t keep coming back to Instagram beautiful macarons and uni on toast if it doesn’t taste good.