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Cooking Outside the Box


FOOD FOR THOUGHT - May 2, 2007 - Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Mark’s Archive

The human brain is divided into the right and left hemispheres.  Generally speaking, and the dichotomy is by no means black and white, the left side of the brain controls verbal learning, language ability, logical reasoning and the like.  Firmly grounded in reality, it operates within rationally delineated parameters.  On the contrary, the right brain is the free thinker.  Artistic, musical, skilled at spatial relations, the right brain is the creative center.  Unbound by deductive reasoning the right side specializes in what’s known as divergent thinking, i.e., spontaneous and imaginative thinking; thinking that is “outside of the box.”  However, at its tangential extreme, this type of thinking can enter the realm of madness.  The long observed correlation between creative ability and insanity is no coincidence.  Van Gogh, Beethoven, Tolstoy, Poe, Hemingway and Sylvia Plath are just some of the more famous artistic talents beset by their psychic demons. 

     Being a good chef is as much an art as a science.  Therefore chefs must rely on both sides of their brain.  But in terms of the creative side, chefs can take one of two paths.  Like many of the geniuses that have preceded them, their novel thinking can take them to new heights, or if pushed too far, render them lost in the clouds.

     There are many ways for chefs to be creative such as restaurant designing, plating artistry, theme menus and devising authentic dishes.  But coming up with an inventive plate presentation is probably not going to lead you too far astray.  For the purposes of the present discussion, I’m focusing on the times when chefs create a distinctive dish, often via a unique combination of ingredients, which may or may not be a stroke of culinary ingenuity.

     Take pineapple on pizza.  Good Lord.  What were they thinking?  Pineapple on pizza is beyond a culinary sacrilege.  It’s just downright gross.  “Hawaiian” pizza, in my opinion, is but one example of a misguided attempt by chefs to reinvent the wheel for the sake of culinary creativity and novelty.  But of course that’s just my opinion.  Once again we find ourselves immersed in the waters of subjectivity.  I’m sure there are people out there that who like pineapple on their pizza, asparagus flan, anchovy mashed potatoes, or a foie gras milkshake.  Who’s to say when a particular culinary concoction is pushing the envelope and based on what criteria?  Interestingly, most people would probably agree that dishes do exist that exploit creative license.  But good luck finding agreement on which specific dishes those are.


     So what’s behind the need to venture from the safeguards of the tried and true into culinary adventure land?  For starters, the patrons.  There are two types of people in the world.  Those that find something they like and stick with it and those who regularly need change.  The former group, as long as they are satisfied with a particular dish, not only never become bored, but can remain steadfastly content.  From time to time they may shift gears but it’s inevitably to just another old stand by.  The latter soon tire of the same old thing and require something new to keep their interest piqued.  They need more than a dish they haven’t had in a while.  They need something totally different.  I can’t help but wonder how much this character trait plays a role in the divorce rate but that’s another discussion.  Chefs are serving the public and a distinct segment of them want gastronomic diversity.  Innovative cuisine can lure customers toward your establishment.  Thus, it makes good business sense to keep your menus fresh, lively, and not wearied by stale has-beens. 

     But it’s not just the public that inspires a need for change.  Chefs themselves may have their own internal motivations for breaking new ground.  They may wish to get out of their own rut.  Maybe they’re becoming bored and need a greater challenge.  Or maybe their restaurant follows a seasonal menu.  Changes in ingredients demand a new look at menu composition.  Or maybe they wish to offer newfangled dishes that can’t be found anywhere else.  One-of-a-kind dishes ensure them at least a temporary monopoly and thus some degree of repeat business. 

     Finally, creativity is an ideal venue for chefs to demonstrate their culinary ability.  Devising original dishes, or at least new takes on old ones affords the chef a forum to stand out and display his talents.  There is no doubt that creativity has put certain chefs and even certain restaurants on the proverbial map.  Consider the cases of Chef Paul Bocuse and nouvelle cuisine or Brennan’s restaurant in New Orleans, famous for bananas Foster, Oysters Rockefeller and other dishes.  Even a simple eatery such as the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York is now a culinary icon thanks to Buffalo wings.  

     The problem of course, as stated, is when creativity is stretched to its practical limits.  Trying too hard to be innovative is what produces a mélange of pineapples, tomato sauce and cheese.  And just because a particular concoction has its advocates doesn’t prove its culinary credibility.  You can come up with almost any combination of ingredients and someone, somewhere is going to like it. 

     Creativity is an indisputably valuable human ability.  Where would mankind be without it?  But it has its pitfalls.  History has shown that those who stray too far from the box sometimes wind up in another container………a loony bin.

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