How Chefs Get in the Mood to Create New Dishes

The creative habits of chefs run the gamut from kickboxing to Google searches.

Kelly English
Photo: Courtesy

At the three restaurants where Kelly English works as executive chef—two in Memphis, one in Biloxi, Mississippi—the decor is pristine and the food a menagerie of color and local charm. Awaiting visitors are dishes like the pan fried pork chop at his Magnolia House or seared gulf redfish ponchartrain and grilled lamb loin at Restaurant Iris. His restaurant The Second Line, meanwhile, lands somewhere between fine dining and the comfort food a reveler expects to encounter in New Orleans

Among the things his diners don't see is the chef's version of a lifehack that English uses to help sustain his creative touch: Every now and then, he exchanges his white apron for workout clothes. It's off to the gym for a kickboxing session.

One of the things English likes about the physical exertion is the way it helps clear his head. "Sometimes, I think focusing on yourself and getting away can really give a good boost of creativity," he says.

Similar ideas run through the restaurant community, and with that in mind, we talked to a group of chefs about how they approach they get in a mental state to invent dishes—how they approach creativity. For each of them, there's no one coin of the creative realm. It's a mix of luck and forward motion, experimentation and awareness that a chef's inspiration can manifest itself just about anywhere, at any time.

Peter Dale
Chef and co-owner at The National in Athens, GA

Peter Dale
Emily Dorio

Peter Dale has been cooking professionally for almost 20 years. His Mediterranean restaurant The National, about an hour outside Atlanta, just celebrated its 10th anniversary, and Dale starts each week the same way. He gets a flood of emails from the farmers he works with on Mondays. It helps him to see what they've got coming, which can help him plan his menus.

"For me," he says, "it's important to be in a routine. Every morning, I've been doing coffee—I really don't like to eat anything. That's, like, the first thing," he says.

"I found a couple years ago that I was a typical chef, just working crazy hours and having a few drinks after work every night and just eating everything all the time. And so the past several years I've been into health and exercise. So most mornings I go to the gym or take an exercise class."

If he starts to skip one or a few days of that, he feels "sort of pent-up energy that's not positive." He likes the exercise for the same reason English does—to help keep his head clear. For him, a clear space, as well as peace and quiet, are also paramount, so he set up a home office for himself. "I have to have a clean space to work in. I need to organize everything."

Arik Skot Williams
Executive chef and owner at The Rotten Bunch Wine Bar + Kitchen in Austin, TX

Arik Skot Williams

Arik, the head chef and owner of Austin's The Rotten Bunch Wine Bar + Kitchen, is similar to English and Dale, in that he likes to quiet his mind. Long drives while listening to music help him with that, though the process actually begins in earnest in a way he concedes is a bit "messy."

"It usually starts with me being hungry. Something will sound really good, and I'll start fantasizing about the sensual details. That might spark a connection to a recipe I read in one of my cookbooks, or a technique, which sometimes leads to this immersion into a certain topic."

A desk overflowing with books and paper resulting from the research might ensue. He likens the process of working through ideas to "chewing mental cud." He'll talk an idea over with people he respects. As he "chews" over the cud of the idea, he's "spitting out the rough pieces, the bits that don't belong or make it more cumbersome or trendy or less focused or are me trying to impose my ego on the dish rather than letting the food evoke and satisfy the animal hunger.

"Then it's time to cook."

Annie Pettry
Chef and partner at Decca in Louisville, KY

Annie Pettry
Sarah Babcock

Annie Pettry's Decca in Louisville is the canvas for her approach to creativity that tends toward the quieter side of things. For this chef, creativity is almost an elusive thing, not so much the result of a lightning bolt moment.

"Sometimes an idea will come immediately, and you'll know what you want to do and will just dig in and start playing," she says. "I start with one ingredient, generally. Sometimes a technique. Then I'll think about what I have on hand, what things might go together, kind of a process of elimination. And then you kind of go—do I have any connection to this ingredient? Do I have a past experience, a childhood memory maybe?"

From there, she turns her attention to the visuals, scanning cookbooks or even searching for ingredients in Google Images, "and a lot of times that'll kind of inspire me to the next step."

Visuals, the seasons, and flavors are what stimulate her mind.

"I think if you need to operate by being creative, often just keeping it rolling and not shutting it off can help. What's around you in nature? In the community? Constantly be aware of everything around you. Instead of having your head down and just trying to get through life or to the next appointment."

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