Kitchen Creativity | Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Unlocking Culinary Genius- with Wisdom, Inspiration, and Ideas from the World's Most Creative Chefs
By Karen Page w/ Photographs by Andrew Dornenburg
Suzy Chase: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book podcast, with me, Suzy Chase.
Karen: I'm Karen Page, and my new book is Kitchen Creativity: Unlocking Culinary Genius with Wisdom, Inspiration, and Ideas from the World's Most Creative Chefs, and photography by Andrew Dornenburg.
Suzy Chase: You and Andrew Dornenburg, two-time James Beard Award winners are back at it with Kitchen Creativity, where the thinking process starts in the kitchen. 427 pages of ideas, inspiration, and wisdom are in this book. How the heck is it organized?
Karen: I think it's actually a great question to kick off with because it is a whole lot, and plus, we've got some front matter of the book. It's actually over 450 pages, so it's good to get a handle on it. We've organized the book ... I say we even though Andrew is the photographer because we are Karen and Andrew. As our website suggest, it's karenandandrew.com. We're KarenAndAndrew on Twitter. We do work together to create the books that we've created. This is book number 11. We've co-authored the first nine, and for the last couple, Andrew's been really exploring his creativity through photography, but he is a great champion and a great person to bounce ideas off of. When I say we, I do refer to the Karen and Andrew team.
We decided that, when we were going to organize the book, that it was really, we saw these stages through the various chefs that we've interviewed over the years, and in particular for this book, some of the world's most creative chefs. We saw that they didn't necessarily always proceed in a linear way, but sometimes, these stages kind of doubled back on one another, but we saw three distinct stages that laid themselves out, and so that's how we've laid out Kitchen Creativity.
The first stage is mastery. The second is what we call alchemy, and number three is creativity. Before you jump into the creativity, there are those two preparatory stages that you can master, starting with mastery, which is really about mastering the basics, learning how to acquire the knowledge, skill, and control that you need in order to work your way through the kitchen. Then we get into alchemy, which is really about flavor affinities and a big portion of the work that we've done prior to Kitchen Creativity through books like The Flavor Bible and Culinary Artistry and What to Drink with What You Eat, so really, exploring the power of those flavor synergies. It kind of all comes together in Kitchen Creativity in those three stages.
Then we go into part two, which is basically an A to Z guide of just almost any topic you could ever imagine. That's organized and laid out for people who are familiar with The Flavor Bible in that three-column format that many have come to know and love, only instead of seeing names of ingredients, what you'll find are different topics from art to architecture to Alice in Wonderland and moving through the alphabet, things like the X factor and yoga. All of these things come together to service spurs for the creative process in the kitchen, and that's really what Kitchen Creativity aims to be, is kind of the ultimate brainstorming guide for creativity. No matter what you're looking to do, coming up with a new dish, a new dessert, a new drink, a new menu, it is a starting place to have endless number of jumping-off points to spur your imagination.
Suzy Chase: Where did you and Andrew find the inspiration to do this book?
Karen: I think each of our books has started with the same inspiration, which is wishing a certain book existed and finding it didn't and thinking, "Well, somebody should write that," and kind of looking in the mirror and thinking, "Well, maybe it should be us." I think every one of our books has started that way, from the very first, we wrote a book called Becoming a Chef when Andrew was trying to decide how to get into the kitchen professionally and was looking for a book on the topic and couldn't find one. That was what led us to set out and interview over 60 of the country's top chefs and really write that process of becoming a chef.
With Kitchen Creativity, it was really a matter of wanting inspiration for a book that we could turn to when the inspiration was lacking, when the muse was gone, and that seemed to be something that a lot of our readers shared. It was in that they were turning to Flavor Bible and Culinary Artistry for to get ideas for flavors that combine well together into a dish, but we realized that flavor is only a part of the equation when it comes to creativity in the kitchen, and so we wanted to create a book that would really emphasize so many of the other factors that go into the process of creativity and also to interview some of the world's most creative chefs and what their influences are when they set out to create, like I said, a new dish, a new drink, a new restaurant concept in some cases, and to really understand what their best practices are when it comes to creativity.
Suzy Chase: When I think about cooking in my kitchen, I think about solitude. Talk about the new trend of chefs collaborating.
Karen: It's interesting because I think that we grow up, we're dependent on our parents, and we see the evolution of becoming independent is really a huge accomplishment, which it certainly is, but I think the evolutionary process continues.
A lot of people get stuck at that independent stage, and they think, "Well, I've gotta do it all myself, and I want the credit that I did X, Y, and Z," but in fact, the world, especially today, is so complex. There are such areas of specialization that it's really only through the process of interdependence that chefs can realize their creative potential, when they work with other people who have had different experiences, different influences, different perspectives and points of view and come together with them to really brainstorm and shake things up a little bit to find ways of moving forward collaboratively. That has, I think, resulted in not only better ideas, but truly grander ideas taking place.
A very timely and wonderful example is that of José Andrés, who has fed over three million meals at this point to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and so you see chefs really taking on an important role globally in terms of addressing social problems, through food, solving problems through their line of work that is really at a level that we've not seen before.
I think that has prompted the creation of prizes like The Basque World Culinary Prize, which is a new annual prize of more than $100,000 that is given by the Basque government to a chef around the world who uses creativity, culinary creativity to solve problems. They'll use it to teach chocolate-making skills down in Venezuela. They'll use it to teach culinary professional skills to inmates and to reduce recidivism, and they're using it improve the quality of school lunch problems. They're using it as José Andrés has used it, and he has been a finalist for this award in year's past, to be able to feed people in parts of the world who are in need.
It's incredibly inspiring to see all of the ways, and if you Google The Basque World Culinary Prize, you'll see lots of the, there'd been 20 finalists from all over the world, and just reading their bios is incredibly inspiring to see how they are using food in a whole new way, but the Kitchen Creativity is being put to use in so many amazing ways in this day and age.
Suzy Chase: In an interview last year, Jacques Pépin told me to learn the recipe, then you can make it your own. In Kitchen Creativity, you write, "Master the craft before you can break the rules," which is kind of the same concept. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Karen: The reason we kick off with the mastery section of Kitchen Creativity is because you really do need to master the fundamentals by studying the past, and that will set you up to be the kind of cook who can walk into a kitchen and create a dish from scratch just by opening your refrigerator doors, your cupboards and seeing what's there and being able to put things together.
I think so many people today think that they need to follow a recipe step by step by step, and if they don't have the 16th of a teaspoon of a particular ingredient, that they're not going not be able to make what they set out to make instead of learning the basics of mastery when it comes to the kitchen of understanding how to think like a chef and season like a chef and shop like a chef. These are the kinds of things that will allow you to, as Picasso said, break the rules.
That process of mastery is really one of learning by copying, and once you copy enough, copy the way that great chefs think and the way that they approach what they do in the kitchen, then you can throw those rules out the window, and you can learn to create by not copying, by creating something completely original. That is something that's going to allow you to do what Jacques Pépin refers to as the X factor. Bring the X factor into your food by imposing your own will on the dish that you're making.
Suzy Chase: In the back of the book, you have a world of infinite culinary, or is it culinary possibilities, the lists A to Z. Under W, you have a section called winter. As a home cook, I love your winter flavor affinities list like acorn squash, Parmesan, and thyme.
Karen: We've always found seasonality is such an important inspiration in the kitchen, Andrew and myself, and so in Culinary Artistry, in The Flavor Bible, there are sections on seasonality, but the seasonality sections in Kitchen Creativity raised seasonality to a whole new level. I mean, these are much more detailed in terms of ingredients that are popular in the winter time, not only wines, but also beers, cocktails, and spirits that you can serve during the winter time. Just looking at the lists of affinities, what is beautiful about flavor chords and why we like to celebrate them, and flavor chords being flavor affinities that are so archetypal that they are used in many, many classic dishes around restaurant menus.
I can lean on any one of them and use that as an inspiration. You could go up with a combination, say, banana, pineapple, and run. All winter ingredients. Bananas are plentiful in the winter time. Rum is a beautiful complement to both of those. It takes you immediately to the Caribbean. You can riff on it. You can come up with a cocktail looking at that with pineapple juice and rum, and maybe accenting it with a dried banana chip. You can play with it as a dessert. You can play with it as a breakfast, maybe minus the rum or save it for a weekend, but just through having those flavor affinities, the three or more ingredients that pair well together, it gives you a start place from a flavor perspective to just jump off and take it in different directions. I think the process of Kitchen Creativity is understanding the elements of being able to play with that.
Suzy Chase: Is it culinary or culinary?
Karen: Leonard Lopate of WNYC Radio, asking us the same question.
Suzy Chase: I know.
Karen: We ... I think, I've heard both. I've probably said both. I think it's a matter of personal preference at this point. Don't you?
Suzy Chase: Okay, good, so I'll just toggle between the both of them. There are over a hundred chefs in this book, and one is Mike Anthony from Gramercy Tavern and The modern, whom I adore. How did traveling to Japan inspire his cuisine?
Karen: Mike Anthony is one of my favorite chefs as well, and we did a wonderful event together at Rizzoli Bookstore a few weeks ago with Amanda Cohen from Dirt Candy and Damon Baehrel from his eponymous restaurant in Earlton, New York. Mike has spoken to us about his, the influences of Japan, and I think understanding them really helped me to understand what I love so much about his cuisine because I think Mike and his cuisine are not flashy, are not over-the-top.
I think they're very grounded. I think they're very rooted. Through understanding the influence of Japan, which incorporates an amazing emphasis on the ideas of time and of place and of celebrating that particular moment of time and place, that, I think, defines beautifully what he's doing at Gramercy Tavern, that he really pulls together ingredients that are of the season and of the moment and doesn't try to serve them in ways that are, let's say, unbecoming to the setting of Gramercy Tavern, which, again, is elegant, but it's rustic, it's homey, it's very much a comforting kind of food as opposed to a show-offy kind of food. I think that it is his emphasis on really celebrating those basic principles that, I think, really defines his food as being what it is.
On one of the things Mike shared with us is that when he has Japanese customers in his dining room, he'll ask his kitchen staff to actually season the food about 5% less, and what he's realizing that is in this day and age where Americans are always emphasizing bigger and better, that the Japanese culture as a whole has this appreciation for subtly that sometimes gets lost in other American restaurants. I love that Mike embraces that sense of subtly in his cuisine and the appreciation for having things being perfectly balanced. He does argue, it is a challenge, when the food is as simple as it is at Gramercy Tavern by just showcasing perfect ingredients prepared perfectly without bells and whistles, it's gotta be perfect or it's going to be boring. I find that the food that Mike produces at Gramercy Tavern is never boring.
Suzy Chase: It's so perfect, and I love sitting in the bar.
Karen: One of my favorite places to eat in New York City, I think, sitting in the bar-
Suzy Chase: I know.
Karen: ... at Gramercy Tavern. A class of wine-
Suzy Chase: Yup.
Karen: ... ordering some appetizers. It's a great experience.
Suzy Chase: He came to my kid's elementary school and taught the kids a cooking class, and it was the sweetest thing you've ever seen.
Karen: I love it.
Suzy Chase: We were so-
Karen: How old is your kid?
Suzy Chase: ... lucky. He's 11, but he was in fourth grade at the time.
Suzy Chase: Yeah.
Suzy Chase: He's the best.
Karen: No, Mike has such a great way with kids. Of course, he's got kids of his own that he's very fond of, obviously. I can just picture him just sharing his passion and enthusiasm for ingredients for all things in the kitchen in just a beautiful way. I think it's so important for kids to be exposed at that young age to ideas about food and really a reverence for it that people like Mike bring to food. I'm thrilled to hear that your son got that experience.
Suzy Chase: What is one dish that you've eaten recently that boggled your mind, creatively?
Karen: I don't know that I get boggled so much anymore.
Suzy Chase: Really?
Karen: I think I've been kind of spoiled that I have been able to eat widely and really appreciate a lot of dishes. I think ... We went to The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, and he knows that we've been eating vegetarian for the last five years, and so he created, an honor of our visit, this wonderful meatless morel mushroom meatloaf that was served in a copper pot with this really rich sauce that was packed with umami served with perfect mashed potatoes, and just incredibly perfect. It was, the texture was so meaty, and the flavor was so full of umami that I would've sworn there was something else going on, but he swore it was just mushrooms cooked to the zenith of perfection. I would have suggested that could serve that dish to any omnivore in the world, and I would've defied anyone not to have gone crazy about it as I did. I think Patrick O'Connell at The Inn at Little Washington is one of the great creative chefs in the United States today.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web?
Karen: Andrew's and my website is at karenandandrew.com, which is also our Twitter handle, and we're on Instagram at TheFlavorBible.
Suzy Chase: This book has inspired us to cook like the world's best chefs. Thank you, Karen, for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Karen: Oh, such a pleasure to speak with today, Suzy. Thanks so much for having me.
Suzy Chase: Follow me on Instagram at CookerybytheBook. Twitter is IamSuzyChase, and download your Kitchen Mix Tapes, music to cook by, on Spotify at Cookery by the Book, and as always, subscribe in Apple podcasts.