10 Chefs on How Failure Drives Their Creative Process
Rahim Kanani talks to José Andres, Eric Ripert, Niki Nakayama, and others about how failure drives their creative processes.
For many of the world’s best chefs, one of the most important drivers of success, leadership, and wisdom is failure. But not failure in the traditional sense. Failure, for the great culinary minds of our time, is synonymous with experimentation and innovation. Failing to succeed is part and parcel of the creative process—when you begin the controlled chaos of merging mind to plate. The nature of this process is a running theme of my new book, A WEALTH OF INSIGHT: The World's Best Chefs on Creativity, Leadership and Perfection, for which I interviewed nearly 45 legendary chefs who have collectively amassed nearly 100 Michelin stars, and who regularly appear atop the World's 50 Best list.
For this story, I’ve pulled out key anecdotes from a wide variety of chefs in the book to paint a truly global picture connecting failure and setbacks to experimentation and innovation. Failure, in short, is both inevitable and insightful, and but a milestone on the road to success.
Emma Bengtsson, Aquavit, New York, USA
When creating a new dish, sometimes I conceptualize it in my mind and it needs some work, but more often than not it can take a few weeks or even a few months to get it right. Collaboration is the key to getting an idea to the plate, which is a process I like to challenge my team with. Working together will ensure that the ultimate dish will be better than any original instinct I had. Timing, too, is very much tied to how an idea is brought to life. For example, I was working on this salmon dish for a couple of weeks and it never came out the way I wanted, so I put it on hold. Several weeks went by and I was at the green market and saw some lovage, which is when the dish came together. Having the season change and seeing the lovage got me motivated to try again, but in a whole different direction.
Emmanuel Stroobant, Shoukouwa, Singapore
Often times the best ideas come at night, and when something particularly interesting strikes, I will SMS myself so I don’t forget. We may not always have the time to develop these ideas immediately, as the ingredients may not be in season or we simply lack the equipment, but after we discuss them as a team, we post our thoughts on our wall of ideas to keep track.
For example, we have a popular hairy crab dish. Instead of trying to source the well-known Shanghainese hairy crab, which was not in season, we looked at the Japanese Hokkaido hairy crab that was readily available. We then used a corn-lemongrass nage that was originally made for another dish. We attempted to pair different sauces with the crab as well as use different cooking methods. After several trials, the end result was something unique and delicious.
Enrico Crippa, Piazza Duomo, Alba, Italy
If I sit with my team, in front of a blank piece of paper, we will never get out of the rabbit hole. A dish can be simmering in the background of my mind for a whole year, or it could be created after a few hours of intense concentration. Often, the first idea that occurs to me is not what the end result looks like. An idea can start as a savory dish and finish as a dessert, or vice versa. The limitlessness of creativity allows for such freedom and transformation.
One of our most famous dishes is the potato cream and lapsang souchong, which is a black tea originally from the mountainous Wuyi region in the province of Fujian in China. This dish was inspired by the smell of wood burning in the stove, which is typical of rural houses in Piedmont. While some ideas, like this particular dish, have a short production process, other ideas can take far longer to realize. There are many ideas in the pipeline that, but for a small detail, we would bring to fruition. I prefer to wait until we have the complete picture, rather than produce something that does not convince me, even if the shortfall is infinitesimally small.
Éric Frechon, Epicure, Paris, France
I enjoy pairing atypical ingredients that no one would have dared dream of, such as the association of sweetbreads and oysters, which was one of our most successful pairings. In general, pairings between land and sea are atypical and still surprise our guests. When creating a new dish, often we recreate a recipe up to 20 times before we are satisfied with the outcome. This process is a lot of trial and error, and sometimes involves a step back, rather than a step forward.
Eric Ripert, Le Bernardin, New York, USA
We spend a lot of time creating and experimenting to perfect a new dish. It all begins with a spark of inspiration. I ask my sous chefs, and also impose on myself, to take notes whenever any of us has an idea. I write it down on whatever piece of paper I have nearby. Eventually I bring all of the papers together and carve out a spot conducive to creativity—one that is calm, quiet, and clutter-free. Sometimes we get lucky and it only takes us a few days to master the flavors and elements of a new dish, and other times it takes months. Sometimes, an idea sounds really good and we’re excited to pursue it, but when we try it, we realize it’s not at all what we expected.
We don’t rush ourselves, either. I once had an idea for stuffed calamari and it took me twenty years to make it exactly the way I wanted it. The challenge was to have calamari that was tender and not overcooked, while also having the stuffing cooked inside. It took us forever to find a solution.
Georgianna Hiliadaki, Funky Gourmet, Athens, Greece
At Funky Gourmet, we see food as a form of art, a culinary experience like going to the theater or the opera. While some ideas are relatively easy to bring to life, others take months to mature before they make it to the menu. A classic example of this is our signature dish, the silence of the lamb. It is one of the most challenging and most delicious plates on our menu: lamb brain cooked sous-vide and finished on the pan with a lemon-oregano sauce in a lamb brain soup.
The idea of using lamb brain had been on our mind for ages. We first saw the use of such an underestimated raw material in high-end cuisine at El Bulli in 2005. It had a very interesting texture and taste, and we were very keen on using it but could never figure out how. Then, after three years of experimenting, the plate was perfected and integrated into our degustation menus. It is now one of our delicious signature dishes that repeat guests ask for again and again. We often try many different things along the way because sometimes a dish can work in terms of taste, but not in terms of appearance—or vice versa.
José Andrés, Washington DC, USA
I am looking for inspiration everywhere—every bite of food, every trip I take, every person I speak with can be a source of inspiration. I am constantly doing research. I brought my team to the most incredible farm in Ohio, the Chef’s Garden, where my friend Farmer Lee Jones grows amazing vegetables and herbs. We toured the farm and filled up our arms with all of this fresh produce and then we went to the kitchen and experimented for two days. Carrots turned into pasta, into sauce, into curry, and into cocktails. Vegetable pulp became the base for fried rice. Beet juice was baked into cakes. If you take a step back and look at an ingredient as if it were the first time, you will always see something new.
Niki Nakayama, n/naka, Los Angeles, USA
When creating a new dish, I usually start with ingredients that I’d like to work with and try to recall how I’ve enjoyed them. I then think about the traditional ways in which they are usually prepared and other flavors that would enhance those original ingredients. I also try to think of new and interesting ways to present their essence. From there, it’s a matter of trial and error in the kitchen. It’s a process of discovery that’s never fully planned or imagined. It’s a flow that leads from one moment to the next, making it up as I go along. After I feel that all the elements work together, I’ll begin the plating process. For example, I wanted to create a dish using sea urchin that was encapsulated by a uni chocolate shell. In my mind, I envisioned something along the lines of the textures of a chocolate truffle, but it being savory with the flavors of sea urchin. It took a little bit of research into what kinds of ingredients we could use to make it happen, and after some trial and error, it came to life. On the other hand, I once had an idea of pairing sea urchin with corn, thinking it would go well together because of their sweetness and mild flavors, only to discover that the pairing didn’t work.
Rodolfo Guzmán, Boragó, Santiago, Chile
The creative process is one of the most complex things to define and explain, mainly because it is a very personal method. The more disciplined you are, and the more structure you have, the more you understand what you’ve done in the past, where you are now, and where you want to go in the future. Real creativity is an exercise, but it is not for everyone. It can be tiring and disappointing. At the same time, it can be the most comfortable place in the world. When your cooking style is attached to creativity, then you feel no attachment to what you do. In our case, we are always ready to move forward and focus entirely on learning and discovering new possibilities and combinations of flavors. During this process, inspiration can come from anywhere, and anything could be a starting point: a product, method, landscape, moment, season or feeling.
On one occasion I wanted to create a new dish over the summer that was very fresh, raw, floral and aromatic using giant squid. I started drawing the dish in a very Japanese-style execution, where you couldn’t see anything but two ingredients on top: aloe vera and squid. Everything else was hiding inside the symmetrical cuts. We plated that exact drawing within a day, and it was on the menu within 24 hours. On the other hand, we have a dessert called the black sheep of the family. It took us three years to reach a point where it was ready to be put on the menu.
Sean Gray, Ko, New York, USA
One example of a dish that came together serendipitously is the wild rice ice cream dessert, which very much reflects our creative process at Ko. We had been working for a while on an idea of a rice, or rice milk ice cream. We wanted to end the meal with what could be interpreted as a bowl of rice. Through countless versions of recipes of rice ice cream, it never had the right consistency or feeling. After a long process, we came to the conclusion that we needed to find a way to control the variables of the gluten found in rice, which was the biggest problem in getting the right texture. We then started using a long grain wild rice, which we could cook or puff from frying in hot oil.
Completely unrelated to the rice ice cream effort, we had once forgotten about some kombu, or kelp, toasting in an oven. It was something that I had brushed with oil and then wanted to lightly toast before adding to a dashi, or Japanese stock. What came out was almost caramelized and had a potato chip texture. We thought that this would be something that we could candy using a drag.e method after breaking the kombu into small enough crumbs. This is a technique used to mask something bitter by coating it in something sweet. Here we thought that a kind of dessert furikake would be simple, flavorful, and have a sense of originality to it. But alas, we had no use for it, and couldn't seem to work it into any of the other dishes.
Then it hit us, merging the two concepts and components together worked really well, and it finally made sense as a dish.