The Creative Process

“Creative people are creative largely not by any particular inborn trait, but rather, because of an attitude toward life: They habitually respond to problems in fresh and novel ways, rather than allowing themselves to respond mindlessly and automatically.”

From “Creativity as Habit” by Robert Sternberg, American Psychologist

all photos were taken at the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design

One of the most rewarding aspects of being a chef is the opportunities we get to create seemingly unique or new experiences for the guests that we serve. In this aspect of the job, the creative process is a key and vital component.

I wanted to take some time to share a few points from what I have learned through the creative process, not just in the kitchen, but in many areas of my life. Hopefully, at the very least, it verifies or challenges what you think about creativity.

Expand on your reference points 

Any novel, poem, art gallery, musical number, as well as the weather, nature, the city you live in, and your friend group can all be reference points for your creative process. All it takes is a bit of paying attention and reflection. 

By expanding your reference points, you create a library within yourself of tools and “ingredients” that you can use to cross reference, take out of context, and combine with other reference points to create something. 

If you think about one of the main ways that chefs have an advantage in this regard is not necessarily just the hours of practice, but also the opportunity we have to expand our palates by tasting a much larger variety of food than the average person cooking at home for their family. One of my previous mentors called it the flavour rolodex. It also gives us the opportunity to work with different cooking techniques, applying them to a wide variety of ingredients, and being able to predict the outcome of certain flavour combinations and complete dishes without necessarily tasting it. 

Working with food for years allows us the ability to predict what coriander, juniper, and roebuck would taste like together, and what ingredients would help to complete the dish. 

As everyone has a unique combination of reference points, it’s important to understand what they are and take the time to add more.

Put yourself in situations of desperation and necessity

Setting limitations and boundaries on the creative process is a great form of pressure for creativity. 

When given a strict deadline, for example, we create a finite amount of time to complete a task. In situations where completing the task seems impossible yet with no option to not complete the task, it’s amazing to see how creative people can get to find the solutions. 

By creating environments that set seemingly impossible points of success, it forces us to get out of our comfort zone and think differently than normal.

Diverge and Converge

My process generally is one based on diverging and converging multiple times throughout the process before a final product comes out. 

What I mean is that when I begin the process of creating, let’s say, a menu, I begin with an approach that intentionally lacks judgment. This isn’t the time for sifting through and justifying the value of an idea. It’s meant to be a time to take whatever you find or think of and put it on the paper. You can sort through it later. For now, it’s important to think of possibilities and dreams, rather than the logical, practical, and realistic. 

The next step of converging is your first shot at condensing and narrowing your findings. Find loose ways to justify why ideas should be kept. Going back to writing a menu, at this time, certain restraints can be considered, such as availability of ingredients, limitations regarding equipment, the concept of the environment in which you will serve the menu, as well as the clientele and their tendencies and habits. 

Once you have a bit of a framework, diverge again. Open your mind and dream again, but this time with a more focus on the ideas that you have left on the paper. 

Diverge once again. This is generally where I try and spend time playing around with the physical products for my menu. I’ll taste the actual flavour components, work with the techniques I want to work with, and look to gain a more multisensory approach to the process. 

I tend to repeat this process until I feel that I have something that I can share with those I trust, which brings me to my next point. 

Have the courage to create, even if it’s not perfect

In many ways, it’s easier to avoid your work out for people to see. I tend to struggle with this one, not because I’m a perfectionist and have the desire to make sure I’m 100% happy with my work before I put it out, but because I can easily find reasons to explain that what I’m putting out has less value than what’s already out there. 

It’s this exact reason why I am challenging myself to write these stories (blogs). 

For those who strive to be creative, it’s important to be brave enough to put something out there, even if it fails. Having a trusted support network around you that you can share with is an important part of the process, but it’s also important to share with a wider audience, with those who may not consider your feelings or motivations. 

Be willing to put yourself out there, and be willing to fail.

Sometimes the best way to work at something is to not work at it

Mulling over the same ideas over and over again is not a very productive use of time. What I’ve found is that ideas can come at any point, and many times, it’s when you’re not thinking about the creative project that you’re working on when you find inspiration for it. 

Having a method to capture those thoughts and inspirations is key. I tend to keep notes on my phone or a notebook in my back pocket. 

Be humble

As a final point, I wanted to share what I believe is the most challenging aspect of the creative process: humility. 

Creativity is not for close minded people. The more you close yourself to the possibility of an idea that falls outside your understanding or belief system, the harder it is to gain new perspectives towards some of your reference points. 

Humility allows you to be open to learning from those around you. It allows you to be open minded. I’ve been too prideful and arrogant in the past, closing myself off to potential learning experiences from those I believed had no new knowledge for me to benefit from. It’s an arrogant perspective, and unfortunately, I’m the only one who loses in this situation. 

 “When a person believes that he or she knows everything there is to know, he or she is unlikely to ever show truly meaningful creativity again.”

From “Creativity as Habit” by Robert Sternberg, American Psychologist

Remember that the creative process is difficult, but the potential rewards of going through the process make it worthwhile. And if all else fails, at least we learn something. 

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