Thursday, May 17, 2012
Chef John Foster: Stoking culinary creativity
not always easy, but end result well worth it
By John Foster
It is a struggle to come up with the one single motivating factor that drives creativity. In my profession, it could be many factors that feed our fires; maybe trying to distill that is like catching lightning in a bottle.
But cookbooks, authors, TV personalities and magazine articles all prattle on about the artistic side of the culinary arts, as if the muse punched a time clock every shift, tied on the apron and fired up the pans. It is never that simple, of course, not in any profession. And part of the fun of cooking is stoking those creative fires. When a Sullivan culinary student hits the creative wall, these few words of advice always seem to get them back on track:
Go to the walk-in and clean it (for home cooks, that’s the pantry and the fridge). When I say clean, take things out of boxes and bags, examine for quality and check the quantity, and then everything back in the boxes and back on the cleaned shelves. Even if you order all the food for your restaurant or do the shopping for the home, you may in the course of even a few days forget some gem you picked up along the way. For me recently it was some beautiful local shiitake mushrooms wrapped carefully in a damp towel, but lost in the back of the crisper. Still fine days later they were the basis of a meal my wife and I threw together one frantic night.
Talk, question, cajole, ask for advice from chef and cook alike. It’s hard to be creative in a vacuum, and most great ideas are the product of collaboration. One person’s concept may be incomplete, waiting for another’s vision or direction. Some of the best meals I’ve created may have started with just me but ended in a chorus of cooks and even dishwashers adding their opinions.
Stimulate the conversation with great product. It’s hard to get creative with a box of mac and cheese; it may be a starting point, but the journey is way too far for most cooks. Strawberries and asparagus are in season right now, and in great kitchens all over Lexington and Central Kentucky those ingredients should be driving the menu. The ingredients are the paint, if you will, of a chef’s canvas and provide not only the base coat, but also the finishing flourishes of great dishes. With the ingredients should come the techniques mastered to bring the best possible qualities of the raw goods to life.
Finally, don’t be afraid to fail every once in a while. Usually with the students, their concern is much more for their grade and not for the actual plate. When I hire you, believe me I will not be asking for your culinary school transcript, I will be asking you to show me some knife cuts and cooking techniques. The best way to master those skills is repetition, and with repetition comes failure, mixed with mistakes and tempered with a touch of success. Remember that you are including other people in your creative conversation and one of those groups will invariably be the customer. Who better to spark a creative moment than a customer that raves about your dish, or maybe it’s the customer who points out the flaws that when fixed may result in “the special.”
I imagine the same dilemma occurs in every creative endeavor in every career. My approach is not offered as the panacea for “artist’s block,” and it may not turn a struggling cook into a superstar, but for me, it is a start back when I am stuck far away from the solution. The way back my be longer sometimes than others but the trip is always worth it
So what did I do with those mushrooms? We added a little sliced onion and garlic to the hot olive oil in the pan and started a sauté. In another pan I roasted some sliced Yukon gold potatoes with more garlic and cracked black pepper, and then finished the potatoes off with some thin sliced parsnip, which ended up caramelizing a bit with the potatoes. Quick and easy and we used up all the fridge leftovers.
John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Chef Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been an executive chef, including at the popular Dudley’s Restaurant, and a restaurant owner.