My mind is a weird little creature- it’s a little counter-intuitive to discipline, or to make do tricks- like settle down when I need it to.
A few days ago, I was chatting with Victoria after work. We have the same problem- coming up with clever new ideas and techniques. We try to let our minds run free, and instead it feels like we put them on a hamster wheel- running ragged, but going nowhere.
It’s even tougher when we have a deadline. The idea that not only MUST you be creative, but that there will be real consequences for failure seems to dispel every whiff of imagination before it can even condense. Victoria needs to come up with fresh menu ideas at least monthly. I need to think of something to write about every week.
“What do you do when you need inspiration?” she asks.
Here’s a few things I rely on:
I get my best ideas while exercising- running, especially. This is surprisingly common to a lot of chefs, but it’s not necessarily the exercise that does it. It’s doing whatever it takes for your brain to sit down, shut up, and pay attention for a minute- anything except running itself around in circles.
In his comic “The Oatmeal,” Matthew Innman (himself an ultra marathon runner) describes a mental state he enters when running as “The Void”- it’s a space where his fears, anxieties, and urges to quit vanish and he can just NOT think. Instead, he gets a simple, blissful nothingness.
When I get there, my brain shuts up- especially the parts that say “what a stupid idea”- and my imagination can cut loose.
While cookbooks as we know them- written by cooks for cooks- where created by Carême, writing down recipes for others goes back to the Middle Ages. This means that, yes, you can pick up copies and read them.
One of my favorite things to do (and a great source of inspiration) is picking up and flipping through old cookbooks- the older the better. I often find great ones in thrift stores, antique shops, and resources online for remarkably cheap if not free. Going through them and looking at the food of hundreds of years ago doesn’t just offer ideas. It offers me a feeling of ROOTS- a deep connection through my craft, going back in time. A direct communication from the cooks and homemakers of the past, to me.
3. Past Experiences/ Memories
“Garbage in, garbage out.” I’ve written about it before, but one of the best things you can do as a cook/baker, or as any creative person, is EXPOSE YOURSELF TO EVERYTHING. Eat wonderful food, and eat crappy food so you know the difference.
Store all those tastes/combinations/experiences in your mind. Remember which ones work and which ones don’t. When you need knowledge, you look it up in a library or online. As cooks, we should build a gallery in our mind and treat it the same way. A veritable library of flavors we can combine when we need to.
If I’m ever stuck for an idea in the kitchen, I always wind up thinking about things I’ve had in the past that I loved. Can I bring them back? Can I make them different, or better?
As for writing, well… that’s the fun part. Want to build a sense of literary taste?
4. Friends and Family
I’m a cook, and consequently, I tend to gather people around me who have strong opinions about food. They are not necessarily professionals- many of them are just home cooks, or people who treat it as a hobby. The wonderful thing about food is that all you need to do is love it enough. I regularly pick my friends brains for what they might like to eat, or what they do with certain ingredients. This is especially wonderful if you have friends with special diets- there are a few people who live gluten free/vegan/whatever lifestyles that I can call on for answers to following their diets, and how to make those things taste good.
Sometimes you need more voices than your own to get ideas from- there’s no shame in it.
“All that’s great- but I’ve got inspirations. I just need to make my brain BEHAVE. I NEED to create on a deadline. What do you do for that, oh great baking maven?”
What do you do?
Step 1- DO SOMETHING!
Seriously, just put SOMETHING on the page. ANYTHING. Throw some stuff together that tastes good. Doodle. Starting with something beats starting from nothing. This won’t be the final draft, or remotely perfect, so that leads to Step 2.
Step 2- FAIL FASTER.
Start iterating. Write things down and cross them out as needed. Nothing can be precious. You can’t treasure anything. Stop waiting till the night before the deadline for a muse to fall out of heaven and beat genius into you. Putting out an imperfect something beats putting out perfect nothing. Go through trial after trial and draft after draft while you have time. You WILL NOT slam out beauty on the first shot- so make sure you have time to MAKE it beautiful.
Step 3- Walk Away
Imagination is a muscle. It needs exercise, it needs fuel, and it needs rest. After you work for a while, walk away. Let ideas simmer for a while. Come back to it later, and come back stronger. Let new ideas slip in when you’re not looking.
Hopefully that’ll help Victoria, and you too.
Of course, the deadline, time-management thing… that’ll take some effort.