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The Secret to Culinary “Creativity”

The Secret to Culinary “Creativity”


Ok, so I have a question for you. Do you think
my food is creative? If you said yes, I think you are wrong. I
get this “creative” comment all the time. In a recent class, I served a kale salad that
looked something like this: kale, apples, walnuts, dry cherries, labne mustard dressing.
One of the students asked me how I came up with such a creative combination. I told her
that I didn’t come up with this. Then she asked me where I got the recipe. I told her
I didn’t get a recipe. Some version of this salad is currently on the menu at pretty much
every farm-to-table restaurant in America, so… you know. I just pay attention to what
I eat. After thousands of questions like these, I
finally decided that it’s time to explain the secret to culinary creativity. I believe that there are 3 layers of cooking
skills. The first layer is knowing how to make ingredients taste good. If you were a
singer, this first layer would be singing on key. If you were a writer, this first layer
would be grammar. Without it, everything else falls apart.
In this layer, you are learning all about controlling the taste with salt and acidity.
You are learning about controlling the texture with knife skills and heat. You are also learning
to shop for ingredients like tender steak and ripe produce. This is the layer I live in. Other food writers
that explore every nook and cranny of this layer are Samin Nosrat in her fabulous book
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat and Kenji Lopez Alt in his equally fabulous the Food Lab. My favorite
dish to give to students to help them appreciate this layer is a roasted chicken breast — because
there is really nothing “interesting” or “creative” about it. People ask me
again and again — “this is just chicken, salt, and oil? Really? how could it be this
good?” It could be. If you become a salt and heat master, a chicken breast could be
delightful. What I wish stuck with my students from the
kale salad was the level of salt and acidity, and the fact that I chopped the kale very
finely to reduce the chewiness. But I fear that as soon as I added the apples, dry cherries,
walnuts, and labne to this poor salad, that’s all anyone paid attention to. In that case,
you might say why add this stuff at all. Well, ok, you got me — it does make the salad more
complex. These additional ingredients give you different aromas and textures. Nuts are
crunchy, apples are juicy, dry cherries are chewy and that makes the salad more fun to
eat. And I think what my students are trying to ask me when they ask about “creativity”
is how do you pick these ingredients. Why add apples and not… I don’t know — bananas? This is where the second layer of cooking
skills comes in. If in the first layer, we were concerned with how to cook, in the second
layer we are concerned with what to cook. Just like musicians choose their instruments
and modes, cooks choose their ingredients and their heat sources. In the music world,
that’s what makes jazz sound like jazz, and classical sound like classical. And in
the food world, that’s what makes Italian food taste Italian and Japanese food taste
Japanese. The only way to get comfortable in this layer is to expose yourself to lots
and lots of great examples. I can’t emphasise enough the importance
of eating out. We get very mixed messages about eating out these days. Is it good? Is
it bad? You know. It’s what you make of it. It’s an amazing source of culinary knowledge
and inspiration if you can analyse what you are eating and remember it. Some people do it subconsciously. I have no
control over it. You know that black mirror episode where you can record your whole life
because you have a special chip in your brain. I kind of have that chip, but only for food.
So, when I am thinking about what to put into a kale salad, I simply think through all the
kale salads I’ve ever eaten. It’s like an instant database of food. Is it nice? Hmm… When I am cooking it’s awesome. When
I am eating out, it can be a little miserable because everything I put in my mouth gets
instantly compared to all the previous versions of this dish, so it becomes harder and harder
to have an interesting meal. At some point, I gave up on interesting, now I am just happy
if I go to a restaurant and it tastes good. If you were born with the same brain abnormality,
you don’t need any help from me. But if you are the kind of person who remembers a
restaurant was good, but can’t remember what on earth you ate there, then here are
some tips on how to develop your food memory. Don’t try to remember every single ingredient.
Do some ingredient processing to abstract and generalize. Instead of remembering kale,
apples, dry cherries, pecans, sumac, labne, mustard, apple cider vinegar, etc. Try to
remember green veggie, fruit, nut combination. This will give you an abstract type in your
mind under which you can file a crazy number of other dishes. Seriously. For the next month,
every time you look at a restaurant menu (even if you don’t order the dish) see if you
can spot the “vegetable, fruit, nut” pattern. I promise you, it’s everywhere in American
farm-to-table restaurants. Of course, other cuisines have other patterns and the more
you travel, the more you get exposed to them. A big thing for me in this second layer is
not ingredient combinations, but the staples for each cuisine. That’s really what determines
its palette (I mean like a color palette the artist uses). What do they use for acidity?
Lemons, Limes, Balsamic Vinegar, Kimchi, Tomatoes, Pomegranate Molasses? What do they use for
salt? Salt, Olives, Capers, Soy Sauce, Parmesan Cheese, Fish sauce, Pickles? When people ask
me what do I cook from my trips to France, Japan, Spain, and Peru on a regular basis,
the answer is nothing really. But those trips have forever changed the palette of my cooking.
You’ll see me use Dijon mustard, miso, black sesame paste, smoked paprika, lime juice and
aji amarillo paste all over the place. I don’t restrict myself to the palette of any one
cuisine. If my bolognese is crying out for some pomegranate molasses, why say no? The third layer of cooking skills is something
most of us will never touch with a 10 foot pole. It’s how do you make food that becomes
an iconic part of a culture. How do you change how other people cook and eat. This layer
requires doing something actually innovative and being good enough at PR to get that innovation
to go viral. It requires great cooking talent, business savvy, and just dumb luck. This is
where food becomes art and I really have no advice for you about this layer since I don’t
do art. My cooking lives in the first two layers and it’s a craft, not an art. So, my one advice to all of you in search
of culinary creativity is to eat other people’s food, think long and hard about it, and then
go home and try to reverse engineer it. It’s just like evolution. You copy that DNA millions
of times and sometimes mistakes happen. Some mistakes are neutral, some mistakes make things
worse, and some mistakes make things better. And the mistake that makes it better is what
people call “creativity”. Oh yeah, if you want to know what’s in my
kale salad, the link is below. If you want a little homework, go mess around with that
kale salad and see how you can change it. Here are more thought provoking culinary videos
for you to check out and if you are ever in the Boston area, maybe I’ll see you in one
of my classes.

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67 thoughts on “The Secret to Culinary “Creativity”

  1. Speaking of culinary evolution, I recently made a Cincinnati chili where I did not have chili powder… so I used curry powder and it turned out pretty good!

  2. I spent 3 minutes typing and deleting text, failing to express my appreciation and support for this type of video that talks about topics very few people bother to discuss even if they are the base of all cooking. So yeah, I give up lol

  3. Spoken like a true chef. The love we feel towards the people we cook for and the appreciation we have for the produce we cook with lies deeply embedded in the first two layers of our craft….. the arty part pops out without intention on rare occasions.

  4. My Ultimate Passion is…. Cooking ❤️ I didn’t use recipes for years, but I do write down what, why, and how when cooking. I do this because when a recipe turns out delicious, I need to remember so I can duplicate 😋

  5. The limit of my creativity is to peruse 4 or 5 recipes for the same dish, from sources I find reliable, and choose or substitute-in the elements I think are best. Mine will never be a household name but it works pretty well for me.

  6. And here I thought it was my poor memory, my laziness to track down the listed ingredients after I forgot, and a willingness to make it work regardless or today is going to be hungry 😛

    Today I'm trying havarti grilled cheese because it's there.

  7. I am a home cook and mother of 4. I learned to cook from my mother, she learned to cook from her mother.. and so on. I am cooking for 37 years now and I cook a variety of meals from other countries and love them. But I always go back to the food that I grew up with. I put my own spin on those old loved and fav. dishes. Over the years you learn what ingredient goes best with this or that other ingredient. If I try a recipe for the first time, I go by the recipe 100% so that I know what it should taste like. The second time I put my own spin to it. I love cooking like this. But the most important thing is: To be able to make tasty food, you need to love food and cooking it.

  8. Hi Helen. I love this. What sets you apart in my eyes is your mastery of heat. Put in the simplest of terms, you know how to use your stove/oven/grill/etc. Before anything else, this to me is why your food is constantly delicious.

    I feel it's also the hardest first hurdle I had learn to jump.

    Of course, Learning your palette, ingredients, balancing flavors etc are all part of why I'm a subscriber too. I'm just offering an outside perspective I hope may be useful to you.

    I can really relate to this video as I too am often "accused" of being creative. While I'm usually sat there thinking something like, "It's just soy sauce and sugar!?!" Lol.

    Have a great day.

  9. Thank you!!! You are the cooking teacher I wish I had had back in junior high when they forced all the girls to take cooking and sewing and I wanted to take wood/metal shop. (I got a C, basically in dishwashing since the other girls were always fighting over the stove rights. Why only a C? because I washed them the way my mother taught me, which made more sense and used less water and soap than the way my young unmarried no kids teacher told me to cus it was in her book.) The Levels!!! I have been struggling to figure out how to approach learning to cook beyond 'keeping people alive' levels (yes at 58 the desire finally awoke). The Levels makes so much more sense now…especially after being married to men who had that same chip as you do and couldn't understand how I don't. I'm an intuitive regarding other subjects, but not domestic skills. I can etch a printed circuit board! I can solder resistors. I can code computers. But the kitchen and the sewing machine…that was just Magic as far as I was concerned. Thanks for bridging my cognitive gap in making the cross-references. If I am ever in Boston (I'm in Los Angeles), it would probably be just to be in your class. I also love your pixie cut!!

  10. PAUSE AT 0.13 AND YOU WILL SEE 2 LARGE v neck vein bulges, she is not a human, she is a demon, just like many celebrities and 75% of today's population.

  11. Thanks Helen! I value your perspective and guidance. As a little boy growing up in Montreal in the late 40's and 50's, the availability of ingredients was limited. Cooking was about the "season" because that was when specific ingredients became available locally- unless you had a can opener handy! Now we live in a time and location where we can put our hands on almost anything whenever we want it. What a luxury and opportunity to try so many exotic things and experiment with cuisines from around the world. And so nice to have you as a guide! I argue that with today's proliferation of ingredients, "good guidance" is more important than creativity. But I still insist you are creative!

  12. Ya wanna see some creativity check out "emmymadeinjapan". Her "creativity" will scare you! Not to step on Helen's toes though. You can't even compare the two because they're totally different. I love Helen's videos because she she is so concise with her recipes and pronunciation. love her accent too

  13. A presentation of profound culinary wisdom… One thing I might add is when I cook for friends and family, I watch closely what they actually eat as opposed to what they say they liked. People tend to feel guilty about "liking" foods that they perceive as not being healthy, but given the chance love to actually eat them… Watching always yields the truth…

  14. I also think education can help. I did a year in the culinary department my husband taught at and while I knew so much of what was being taught it really did help with all the really basic stuff…clarifying butter, toasting nuts, the best pan to saute in. Once you get all the basics down it is so much easier to be creative. That being said, there are just some people who have a natural gift for innovation. I don't envy them but I do acknowledge their talent and see what I can incorporate into my own cooking. This is why your videos are so important to me. And I have been cooking for 57 years. There's always room to improve and things to learn. Thank you for your honesty.

  15. Hey Helen, why is "Helen's Kitchen Channel Trailer" no longer on top of your homepage?? It''s a brilliant video to introduce your channel and it's so you!

    Please put it back up there girl!

  16. 🤔 Looks like Kale Pasta to me, I can abstractly reverse engineering something similar just on one still photo only. I didn’t say it would taste exactly the same. But that all to me is part of the essence of creativity in the kitchen. I think you answered it well. I find a lot of my own creativity also comes from my imagination as well also being inspired. When I didn’t know the basic essence of cooking, well I couldn’t figure how to just cook anything or even what added flavor. I learned that and always learning. In imagination it helps to know of ingredients and some idea of how to use them. In using them, you learn and get better at It. It helps to be adventurous in the kitchen for creativity. Just looking around at what you have and build some abstract idea of a dish in your mind or doing so while actually making it. I find I often watch great chefs cook, especially the masters in learning techniques. I thrive on learning techniques and when I see it. The chefs for me inspire in how they cook and in how they creatively use ingredients. I find learning in all that. Less so on the exact ingredients they use, but in abstract how they cook or plated a protein on a simple dish, a salad or ragout or anything as such.

    That inspiration 🤔 I’ve found for myself over time allows me to just look around my kitchen and pantry and say, I’ll do something along that line. Not exact but with what I saw as inspiration. Other times I see a vegetable or two and say 🤔 maybe I sauté some good Chorizo I just bought and add some mushrooms and kale or some greens I have. Maybe I double sear a protein I have on hand and stick it on top of that. Or maybe I make maybe a Ragout or vegetable Medley with ingredients I like and cook the fish in a way I like that complements the dish. Then try to plate it with imagination. Thus for me Imagination and Inspiration both has helped to make me a much better cook. At best, I always try to stay inspired in what I see or taste and always learning. Find what helps or spurs your inner creative you. And so for me I get creativity not in reading good photo cookbooks, but in random flipping the pages quickly and let the photo speak back. Watching chefs cook in videos or TV and see how they use techniques in assembling dishes. That all inspires my own creativity.

  17. Hmm ,not sure I agree. Isn't creativity the choice of what you do in a combination that you pay attention to and what you ignore? I love to sketch buildings and landscapes and sketch what is there, but I decide what I put there, what I leave out, what color I decide to make something. I don't think it's that different for cooking. Love your video though.

  18. Well, necessity is sometimes the mother of invention … and I think creativity too. For instance, I was making your recipe for Mujaddara and while I had some canned tomatoes in the cupboard, I had a dish of already roasted red peppers in the fridge. I decided that since roasted red peppers tend to be my substitute in many things when tomatoes are out of season, they might be a good and slightly more convenient replacement in this dish. Yum! I think I may like them better than the tomatoes 🙂

    I often thing in terms of flavors and textures. This need something salty or sweet; this need something crunchy … then I look in my pantry and fridge and see what I have on hand. Keeping a well stocked pantry can make this a pretty satisfying adventure 🙂

  19. You may want to back off complimenting Kenji for another year or two, as he's apparently a political hot potato now. He refused to serve me and about half of America in his restaurant — and still doesn't want to, I think, because I believe it was his investors' lawyers' pressure on him, and perhaps not his own convictions, which I think forced him to retract his stance. I just don't want you caught up in it all. Oh, and for anyone else reading this, here's a little tip from your Uncle Adam: every time you take a stance on a political issue, you cut your fanbase in half. Have your convictions, but keep them *YOUR* convictions and just keep smiling at everyone. You're welcome.

  20. The Secret to Culinary “Creativity “ is to be an incredible doll, smart and personable. I hope her husband appreciates her as much as I do.❤️

  21. Dear Helen, you are incomparable! It seems that time passes by and always manage to make even better videos. Your explanations are so clear and precise… Thank you and Congratulations!

  22. So, Helen, you have 136K subscribers. Lets have a vote…all those who think Helen's work is 'creative', regardless of your interpretation of the word, please raise your hands now. Guess what Helen? We all raised our hands. I watch to learn and enjoy. Keep up the good work. 👍🖖😉

  23. Thank you so much for this video! There are so few videos out there that can teach not about the subject but about how to approach the subject. I bet it's much harder to capture that level of abstraction in words, but I found it so helpful!

  24. I can see that Americans are racist about food, Someone has to put up Italian or French accent to be believed he can cook "authentically". But them since the English speaking world cannot help themselves from adding tasteless muddy cream to carbonara, maybe there is something about their genetics 😛

  25. Too often when I was applying for a Chef position I was taken to the kitchen (usually by the Chef de Cuisine) and given an apron and a pair of gloves. Once I had donned those the Chef said simply, " If you're any good you should already have an idea where everything is. So please, cook me something." This is the very essence of culinary creativity. To possess enough skill and knowledge to walk into any kitchen cold, look at what's available and put together a tasty dish. That particular Chef, after tasting my dish, hired me and put me to work that evening using my dish as the special. I disagree (reluctantly, I like her a great deal) with her assessment that there is no art in the second phase. Like she quoted, an artist with his palette. The artist chooses the colors to work with but she fails to mention that the artist starts with basic colors. Then the artist appears, mixing and blending the basics in to wonderous colors. That's the art, that's the creativity in culinary arts…

  26. I think you're too modest. And I think people are confusing your thinking for creativity. You think about food, you think and experiment about how to get to best result that you would like.
    Most of the people approach cooking religiously, as if it were some hidden secret skill endowed only to the few selected and initiated. As the final stamp of proof of this amazing cooking knowledge that people love to mystify, the best ones become TV celebrities. If something is a mystery, then people cannot just freely act about it and break it down, criticize it, experiment with it and change it.

  27. Great advice!
    In addition to eating out, I would add to watch and read lots about food. When you want to make a dish, try looking up several recipes and see how they differ. Eventually, you learn to pick and choose from them and even ad-lib from other knowledge. I also highly recommend The Flavor Bible; it's a reference book where you look up a major ingredient or flavor component and it will give you a list of pairing flavors, and sometimes even 3-5 flavor combinations.

  28. I love your videos Helen, not only because you go over simpler techniques and recipes, but because you also teach about such broad topics like these! Taking a step back, I feel like your advice can apply to more than just cooking, but to life in general haha. Honestly, as the amateur I am, you'd be my go-to teacher for cooking! I'm so grateful you spend the time to make these videos!

  29. Ok you are so annoying. You talk talk talk but no cooking why no cooking? Yak yak yak listen to my accent. The end result…nothing. Join me again next time.

  30. loved this video! I went to Il Casale in Belmont, MA once and I had spaghettoni with lobster that was fantastic! I had never eaten anything quite like it. I went back and had it a second time. I've been trying to recreate it in my own kitchen ever since. I've never quite gotten it right, but I do enjoy trying!

  31. The number of times I've said the sentence. "I made a weird salad or soup for dinner" to my boyfriend… Sometimes my creativity works but most timed it just makes stuff taste weird, rarely bad though. Luckily he cooks more often and we eat delishious meals most often. 😅

  32. I would like to see some videos on spices and when and what to use them on. Even if it’s just the basic info, because there is so many variables on this.

  33. I recently subscribed to your channel after I watched your pirozhke video and then I saw this video and I cannot express how great I thought it was. A great topic and you presented it so well. I have been cooking for years and people say to me, you are a gourmet cook. I always tell them, no, don't say that I just follow the recipe. In my mind I always think, I wish I could come up with my own recipes but I had NO IDEA where to start except to take a recipe and modify a few things which I felt like it was cheating. Now, thanks to you, I can think about this whole thing differently. I can certainly do as you explained to pick a meal I've enjoyed out at a restaurant or made at home in several different styles and then recreate it with my own flair, that seems doable! Thank you, this is life changing for me as far as cooking goes! 😘

  34. #RealComment Thank you for this wonderful message. I have learned so much about the "craft" of cooking for your channel, and I'm so grateful for all you share and teach. Would you consider a video on acidity? The different types, what sort of flavor (in addition to acidity) the types add, and when you'd be better of with a certain type of acid, for example, when would you be better off with lemon juice than pomegranate molasses, for example?

  35. #realcomment Although the TV show Iron Chef was a little contrived, I find myself in the situation of not wanting to go shopping and making do with what is around the house. I have never resorted to banana stuffed bell peppers, but some Desperation Dishes have become family favorites, like pork chops and red sauce. What is red sauce? Well, the first ingredient is desperation, then you add some …

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