By Kevin Dragon
The great French gourmand, Fernand Point, once said, “If the divine creator has taken pains to give us delicious and exquisite things to eat, the least we can do is prepare them well and serve them with ceremony.”
This could not be any truer. And while this distinguished task may seem somewhat daunting at first glance, it really is a rather simple engagement. Cooking itself is easy; you’re lying to yourself if you think otherwise. At its basest level, it is simply a marriage of ingredients and execution.
However, as one’s skill set in the kitchen advances, it is only natural to enter into the realm of creation, which is not quite so easy. While cooking is essentially just science— if you follow a recipe and your technique is correct, you will achieve the same result every time— creating your own dish is an art. However, do not let this dissuade you; let it challenge you.
The single most important factor in the creative process and the factor that will drive your dish from the beginning is your choice of ingredients. Always strive to work with very fresh local ingredients. You can only be as good as your ingredients, so you must ensure that they are as fresh and as perfect as possible.
You do not, however, want to go crazy and overcomplicate the dish with too many ingredients. There is beauty in simplicity, and using just a handful of ingredients will allow you to elevate each one in a unique way that will still be detectable by your diners. Restriction can be the most effective vehicle for creativity: it forces focus and ingenuity, and it discourages complication.
Just as no work of art is absent of inspiration, so should every dish be derived from some sort of stimulus. This could come in the form of a dish you’ve had before, a desire to study a particular ingredient, or maybe you’re just hungry.
Regardless of your inspiration, it’s time to think about how you’re going to transform your ingredients into a composed whole that is complete and harmonious. In order to achieve this, it is paramount that you taste everything along the way: you must be familiar with the flavors and textures of your ingredients, you must understand the relationships that they have to each other, and you must be willing to explore these relationships further. Make sure you season everything, and for the love of God, don’t be afraid of salt. Salt is your best friend.
A recipe should be nothing but a point of departure for your own creativity. The recipe provides the guidelines for you to interpolate your own personality into the dish. It allows you to make magic happen and to describe yourself through your food; it can exhibit who you are, how you think, your sense of humor, and more. Use this opportunity to poke fun at tradition and use whimsy.
The more creative your dish is, the more your diners will appreciate it. Perhaps make a play on an old classic while turning it on its head. Maybe observe something in nature—a shape, a texture, or even an entire landscape – and translate it to the plate. Take your inspiration and make it your own. You get to make the rules, and that is the ultimate freedom.
So get out there and get started making your own dish. Gather some ingredients and grab your friends; cooking is not individualistic, it is communal. Engage with friends and family and the entire experience will be much more wholesome. Most importantly, have fun. There’s a whole world out there ready to share its bounty with you, so happy trails and good eatin’!
Kevin Dragon is the Executive Sous Chef at The Camelot Club,