Creativity

Discussion in 'Professional Chefs' started by madewithnotepad, Oct 1, 2014.

  1. madewithnotepad

    madewithnotepad

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    Hey everyone,

    I have a serious question and I would really like to get as much input as possible. 

    I'm a hard worker. I'm ambitious. I'm smart, I'm organized, and an extremely fast learner. I became a chef (kitchen manager) at 22 (25 now), surrounded by 30-50 year old men at chef meetings. I do well enough.

    But...I don't feel that I have any creativity. Ideas don't just pop into my head. I don't experiment. If I work at a place where I need to make specials, I usually put it off until the last minute, then look at a few other restaurants' menus and use that as inspiration. Usually, if I just look at the title of the dish I can come up with something similar, or look up a recipe as a last resort just to get an idea.. I don't know if that's normal, or it sounds terrible.

    If I see something, or I made it at some restaurant, I can draw from that. I know plenty of techniques and have a good palate. In any case, there have never been complaints about specials I've made, and I've gotten compliments from customers and waitstaff.

    But it just feels like a chore to me. It doesn't make any sense. If I'm deep cleaning the cooler, I'm happy. If I'm organizing an order guide, I'm happy. If I'm polishing equipment, I'm happy. If I make a big prep list and finish it all, I'm happy. All I see all over this website is that you have to have the passion and the drive to work in the restaurant industry. 

    Well, I like my job - but I don't feel fulfilled. And as much as I try to do things to make being "culinarily" creative fun for me, such as blogging all my specials or taking pictures of them, it just never feels like passion. I have a drive to work. But I don't have a drive to push boundaries, to have new ideas, I just don't. I do love cooking for friends or making family style meals for my cooks, because I like to see people I care about like the food I make.

    I don't know if I'll ever fit in. I don't know if I'll ever "care" the way I'm supposed to. I just have a constant itch that I'm in the wrong place or industry, without an inkling of what else to do or how else to make money. I feel like I'd have more fun and be happier jumping from restaurant to restaurant around the country or world, learning new things left and right and not having the responsibility of being boss, leader, manager. Does anyone actually do that? I've been stable my entire life, keeping jobs for a long time and only moving up and making more. Would it be hard to go back? Would that even fix the problem? I was so burnt out at my last job, I had to quit without a prospect, something I never did before. (Got another job right away, but it was still a huge deal to me)

    Are there other chefs out there who feel the same way at all? My life and my time are important and precious to me...so much more precious than money and materials.
     
    Last edited: Oct 1, 2014
  2. phaedrus

    phaedrus

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    This is a complicated question!  Chef is one of the few pretty decent paying jobs you can get by accident.  Much like you I got my first Exec job pretty young based more on my work ethic, responsibility, drive and speed on the line than my creativity (and frankly they needed a chef!).  I grew into the job and quickly realized I was very passionate about food and cooking.  Given the long hours, generally mediocre pay and shitty working conditions it's not a job you should be in if you don't love it.

    Not everyone is "supposed to be" a chef.  I've worked with plenty of shoemaker chefs that really should be hanging drywall or selling insurance (actually, one of the worst of them did move into selling insurance).  Sometimes a person gets lucky and gets into a situation at just the right time and manages to parlay it into more than their talent really merits.  Other people have the drive and creativity but don't get the opportunity or don't know how to sell themself/seize the reins when presented.

    You sound like you're still pretty young.  Maybe you shouldn't be a chef.  It pays more than Sous or line cook, but maybe you'd be happier taking a step back to sous. 

    You're young enough to try something else, too.  If you don't have any big financial obligations that require the exec pay you're earning maybe it's time to start socking away a bit of cash, some "F U money" so to speak.  Try something else.  It may be you won't learn to leave the kitchen until you leave it for awhile.

    Best of luck whatever you do.
     
  3. phaedrus

    phaedrus

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    One more note- while the media loves the meme of the audacious young chef creativity is usually something you learn.  It usually comes from being mentored by someone that knows a lot more than you do.  Exec at 22 doesn't leave a lot of time to fill your mental library with ideas.  I was in the same boat at that age, having worked for few good chefs by that time.  You can bet that Grant Achatz didn't spring from the womb a Grant Achatz, nor did Thomas Keller, Wylie Dufresne, Marco Pierre-White, etc. They busted their asses under great chefs and developed the foundations they would later build successful careers on.
     
  4. madewithnotepad

    madewithnotepad

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    Thanks a lot for your input. It's definitely my plan now to just save all my money and work for a bit so that I can be comfortable if my life takes a different turn. Or, should I be brave enough to force my life to take a different turn, since it definitely won't happen on it's own. I know that if I feel like this now, after only so many years in the kitchen, it's only going to get worse as life goes on. It's scary though. Terrifying, to have no clue. 
     
  5. madewithnotepad

    madewithnotepad

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    And I definitely agree with that. I haven't worked under any great chefs or in any great restaurants, and I've been taught very little outside of culinary school. I never had a mentor, and I've never worked in a place that truly cared about food and quality and creativity. Which is why the idea of jumping from restaurant to restaurant appeals to me, to trade my time for knowledge instead of money.

    And I feel like I'm expected to know so much, and it's intimidating and can be embarrassing. I can look things up and get by, and I'll always admit if I don't know something because I'm always willing to learn, but I feel like I should know so much more. 
     
    Last edited: Oct 1, 2014
  6. stketcher

    stketcher

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    Im currently on a similar situation. Im 22 now, five months ago I was a cashier at a supermarket then two months later started working has a dishwasher and in a little more than two monthsI find myself doing three days on the line ( entrees) and two has prep.  Like you I look at all this big chefs (this is what got me into cooking) and admire their flavor combinations, plating techniques,  creative output and passion they display wondering If ill ever get to that level  (most of the time my mind says no!).  Then comes all the "oh but their in a place that trully cares about products, quality, helping people flourish by sharing knowledge"  thoughts on my head and I dont really know if they are excuses or what...
     
  7. phaedrus

    phaedrus

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    In America we have this meme of "loving what you do" and it sometimes gets us into trouble.  Sure, some people are lucky enough to be able to 'monetize' (to use a buzzword de jour) their love but for the bulk of us work will just be a job.  Even if it's a career that's not a guarantee you'll love it.  I think 50 years ago our parents and grandparents felt lucky to have jobs and were grateful for work.  Work wasn't their life but something that made their lives possible.  A farmer was a farmer 24/7/365 but lots of jobs are just jobs.  It's a lot of ask of a job to provide everything you need in life- money, a purpose, a social life, self actualization - the whole works.  It seems like there should be a passion for life itself, not just a passion to work or do one thing.

    All that said, if you're working just for a paycheck then for the most part cooking is a pretty harsh way to earn it. As you all know the kitchen is hot, the work is stressful and the hours tend to suck.  For a chef you're looking at a lot of hours and it's discouraging to divide your salary by those hours.  Many a chef earns less per hour than his cooks, maybe less than his dishwashers when he's really busy!

    Lastly I think there's a big and very worthwhile zone between fast food jockey and Michelin starred chef.  Guys like Thomas Keller and Heston Bluementhal are kind of the Tom Brady's and LeBron James's of the cooking world.  But lots of people love football and basketball even though they'll never play at that level.  It's not like you have to reinvent food as we know it or admit you're a failure.  If you put out good food that makes people happy, that's huge.  There was a point maybe 12-13 years ago that I got burnt out of the hours and went to work briefly for a bank.  I was really miserable.  All I did was shuffle shit around, I didn't build anything.  I didn't make anyone happy or create a great memory for anyone.  Even the best line cook at Red Lobster makes people happy and helps make memorable birthdays, etc.  That drove me back to the kitchen.  Been there every since.
     
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  8. spoiledbroth

    spoiledbroth

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    It's also not impossible to get into these type of Michelin starred places. I would agree with phaedrus, it sounds like just a general lack of exposure to a wide variety of culinary styles, dishes, cooking techniques etc. has left you with very little in the way of to rely on when creating menu items from scratch. IMO you shouldn't have to look up recipes online. I'm not putting you down, I'm just saying, as the leader of a kitchen (and hopefully the person who dictates the menu) you should be able to come up with these things relatively easily.

    On passion... you may lose it from time to time. Or was there a time you were ever really passionate about cooking? To be punny, was there ever a time you were "hungry" as a cook... to learn more... to the point where you would hang around off shift to learn?? Do you/did you ever immerse yourself in the industry OUTSIDE of work (trade magazines, cook books, cooking books, skill development after school -- culinary arts is not nearly the end all be all of your training)... Do you have any interest in travelling abroad and learning about different cuisines/food scenes?

    Like anything else cooking is a job and you can get burned out on it. Sometimes you need to take a step back. Maybe you've learned all you can where you live (this is unlikely, but it can often start to feel stale cooking in one place too long, I find). Maybe you need to get out in the world and see what's going on!
     
  9. allanmcpherson

    allanmcpherson

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    Being creative is something you learn, and it gets easier the more you work at it. You might be beating yourself up for looking at other menues for inspiration, but that is a good way to start. No ideas just pop into your head fully formed. It sounds like your fundamentals and "can do" ability are right on. That is good. Coming up with things like solid specials are often an exercise in moving product you have to sell, start there, what do you need to move tonight? What would make that sexy toma customer?

    I have always felt one of the biggest obsticals to improving the over all quality of our industry is that we as cooks rarely have the chance to eat out and actually experience what our peers are doing. Its really hard to know what to cook if you can't get your own palate really refined. One assumes that writers are readers yet cooks rarely get a chance to enjoy the experience of dining out.
     
  10. madewithnotepad

    madewithnotepad

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    Thanks for your input everyone. Yes, I do look towards work as if it should be passion, self-actualization, a purpose - it's definitely a big order. And when the restaurant is busy like crazy, I love it. 

    But the job I'm at now is slow and boring. I hate walking around looking for something to do. It's worse now that I'm the chef and I can't just sit there and deep clean all my equipment. I have to order other people to do it and help out a little, but if I just do it all...well, it can't work like that. 
    That almost happened to me this time around, but I took another kitchen job. I keep dreaming about doing some creative artistic things that I'm actually good at, like web design, but then I think about sitting in an office 8 hours a day, and I also think that would be hell. 
    Is there that much of a difference between looking up recipes online and looking at a cookbook? Wouldn't it just be considered furthering our education? There's plenty of fundamental things I can do without a recipe, and I generally never look at the quantities in a recipe, but if it's something new I feel like I need to know what goes into it.
    Yes, yes and more yes...before I ever went to culinary school and had no idea what I was doing, I absolutely loved having friends over for parties and making all sorts of recipes. Then when I began my first job, it wasn't a creative place by any means, but it was busy as hell (did around $100,000 every Saturday) and after I finished all my banquets, I'd go on the line and start cooking until the chef would kick me out for being there too many hours. As far as travel, that is my EVERY interest - and the biggest pull to culinary arts for me. My dream in life is to travel the world; I work to do everything I can to become closer to that goal. At 25, I've paid off all my student loans, have no car loans or any debt and pay minimal rent. I feel like I'm just working right now so that I can do that - but I don't know how! EVERY restaurant I've worked at has just been American food, and it just drives me insane. Only during an internship in Italy and one at a fancy Mexican restaurant did I care about the food I was making. I love food from other cultures, I love learning new things. I just...don't know how to put it all together.
     
  11. spoiledbroth

    spoiledbroth

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    I'm not necessarily saying its bad to look up a recipe, but the initial post made it seem like you would habitually be looking up recipes for the special you had to create. For me personally that suggests that you need more familiarity with ratios and just general cooking experience I guess really. I can't pinpoint the time when I stopped having trouble coming up with a dish or what triggered it. Do you memorize ratios and simple recipes? Soft/medium/hard boil egg, 3:2:1 ratio pie dough, basic pasta dough, roux, etc. As soon as you can really make a number of good basic component without looking at a book and are even casually watch some professional cooking media you should be brimming with creativity!
     
  12. phaedrus

    phaedrus

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    I will say that if you stick with it over time you'll build a "database" of recipes and ideas.  Once you have some experience under your belt seeing other recipes won't lead you to copy them- it will inspire you to combine it or use it as a jumping off point to another unrelated idea.
     
  13. madewithnotepad

    madewithnotepad

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    I mean, that's what I do. I know plenty of techniques, I don't actually look up recipes with numbers and ratios really, just look at pictures or titles of other dishes and throw stuff together until it tastes good.
     
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  14. phaedrus

    phaedrus

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    If you don't already have it The Flavor Bible is a great resource.  Just looking at different things that compliment each other can give you some ideas.
     
  15. madewithnotepad

    madewithnotepad

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    Has anyone read "Medium Raw" by Anthony Bourdain? I just started reading it and it explains everything - everything! He starts talking about how your first decisions out of culinary school determine everything. And it's so true. Once you work at the hotel, country club, corporation and have your benefits and reasonable hours and pay, it's nearly impossible to jump from line to line at really great restaurants for little to nothing for the learning experience. If I had worked some fancy Chicago restaurant instead of Dave & Buster's as a first job, would everything have been different? Almost certainly. It's just blew my mind to read what he was writing. I've never been able to relate to something so completely. (And Bourdain himself laments doing the same thing, which is why he feels he can never compare himself to his contemporaries).
     
  16. spoiledbroth

    spoiledbroth

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    Bourdain is a great writer, and generally a seeminly awesome person. One celebrity chef I am not ashamed to be a total fanatic about. I don't necessarily believe things are so heavily determined by your initial employer. I know people who are shaving foie on top of fancy canapes right now who started out in QSR... and these people are Chef de Cuisine with bright futures. With the advent of the pop up restaurant and the number of exceptionally young chefs out there doing inventive takes on classical cooking using new gastronomic techniques I think it's perhaps alot easier to become "great" (relatively, I'm talking about having an ultimate goal of running a critically lauded high end restaurant kitchen, not being a TV celebrity) than ever before.
     
  17. phaedrus

    phaedrus

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    Funny, I was going to bring that up but my post was already getting long winded.  Yeah, I think he makes a great point.  He stresses that while you should couch surf if necessary to work at great places he did not do that.  Neither did I.  I became a chef by accident.  While I've made up some ground just due to decades of experience if I had known I'd be doing this for this long I'd have done it a a little differently.  Still, you have the ability to make of yourself whatever you want.  It will require extra work on your part on your own time and your own dime, but you can do it.  Everything I know about sous vide for instance I learned on my own at home.  Bought the equipment five years ago and just dove in headfirst.  I bought some books and researched for a year before getting a circulator to make sure I didn't kill myself, though./img/vbsmilies/smilies/lol.gif
     
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  18. allanmcpherson

    allanmcpherson

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    I do get amazed by cooks and chefs that don't to R & D on their own time. If I hadn't spent the summer of my 19th year learning bbq on my own (and back then, on the east coast on Canada, let me tell you there were no out of the box solutions) I never would have landed my first high profile chef gig fifteen years later. Or at least I wouldn't have been good at it.
     
  19. madewithnotepad

    madewithnotepad

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    Oh absolutely, absolutely - I will be the first person to say that everything is determined by your own personal motivation, not necessarily the factors in your life. But the way he put it, it made so much sense to me. I just hadn't considered it before. It actually makes me really happy and feel good about what I do when I read him, because his attitude is just like mine, and I know there are so many people out there like me or in a similar situation - I'm not alone.  I made Indian food for a group of friends for dinner two nights ago, and Middle Eastern food for a different group of friends last night. I absolutely love it - making quality food for people I care about and experimenting with new things. It's awesome, and I do love it. It's very different when it comes to work, but I'm trying to come to terms with the fact that you can't have too many goals at once, and you don't have to accomplish everything at once.  Currently, my passion is staying up all night singing, playing instruments and recording songs, and if I were to spend that time researching recipes I'd be a much more amazingly creative chef. However, it makes me happy and fills a certain creative void I have, and finding an outlet outside of the crazy hours and stress of the kitchen is important.
     
  20. recky

    recky

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    You're never going to believe it, but I became a chef and restaurant owner not by formal training, but by travelling the world and reading much of the cooking literature written in the past century. I spent 20 years reading and cooking for myself, friends and family (in fact, oftentimes just for myself to try things out), increasingly being asked to do catering jobs, before I became a restaurateur. I spent 20 years developing my palate, building a passion for food and cooking, and acquiring the knowledge to actually know what I'm talking about. I have since had trained (and talented) chefs working for me, networked with other chefs and restaurant owners and grown safe in the knowledge that I know more about food and cooking than many of my peers. I have also learned how to run a restaurant, but that's another story.

    I'm still in awe about great trained chefs, because they have served time in all those great kitchens, but when it comes to running a restaurant and serving great food (rustic as it may be), there are few chefs that can hold a candle to what we do here. And I'm fucking proud of it! I still read cook books and have developed a "mental palate", i.e. I can tell from reading a recipe what it will taste like.

    So, my advice to you is: READ!!!! You've worked in the industry for some time, make sure you read up on the basics, the classics, the seminal works. All you need to know to get creative is in there!

    Cheers,

    Recky
     
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