Author :chef ssentongo Geoffrey
You have been cooking for some time now, but you have always been a sort of recipe follower. Yet you know the basic composition of flavor components (sweet, sour, & umami…) but you have never been able to come up with something new, nor have not really made an effort attempting it.
You wonder what kind of procedure professional chefs follow when trying to cook something new or trying to update a dish.
Is There Really an Established Science About Flavor Out There to Follow?
I’m basing this mostly on my observations I’ve had with the professional chefs the way they work, and the conversations I’ve had with them. Although I never asked them directly how they came up with dishes, I have sometimes served as a sounding board for their ideas, offered suggestions, and seen menus-in-progress, which I think provides some valuable insight.
Keep in mind that every chef is a bit different. There are many sources of inspiration that a chef can use when creating a dish. They can think back to their childhood, look at trends among their peers and in the industry as a whole, look to many different culinary traditions, and so on. From their style, in general, I know there are some fairly universal processes.
There are really tow distinct things happening when coming up with a dish: Ideation and Execution.
I mean the process of coming up with an initial idea for a dish. This is when the chef has pretty much a blank slate and they’re thinking about possibilities for what they want to do. This can take a lot of different froms, and I’ve heard chefs describe how their ideas first came to them in a lot of different ways. It can be :
* A “Lightbulb Moment”
Where the concept spontaneously and suddenly appears in their mind, oftentimes when they’re working on something else.
* Thinking about multiple dishes and trying to re-match “elements” or components of each dish with one another. For instance, taking the flavors of a Ceasar salad and combining them with the presentation of a deviled egg.
* Being inspired by a single ingredient, and finding a few other flavors that complement or contrast that core flavor. For example, complementing a sweet corn soup with snow crab meat and a melted paprika butter. A much better example.
* Taking a dish (From any number of sources) and deliberately trying to do something different with a single element, component, or flavor.
Notice that one of those approaches is not sitting down with a dictionary of flavors and trying to assemble combinations that “scientifically” go together somehow. Some chefs have an intuitive feel for what flavors go well together, a kid of sensory memory, that is not just informed by flavor pairings but also by culinary traditions.
The list of potential flavor combinations is close to infinite, but people tend to gravitate towards the familiar in their food.
Chefs know this from their training and experience, and they don’t try to draw out flavor combinations from a blank starting point. Instead, they utilize pairings that they just “know” work well, or that they love sometimes they’ll swap out a single component from that pairing for something similar, but in general they’re not trying to invent totally new, never-done-before combinations of flavor.
The reason is not because they’re cooking these dishes as written instead, they’re drawing on them for initial inspiration. They’re reading the recipe as written and thinking about how they want to utilize the particular method, what different components they can swap out, or how they could adapt the same dish to a totally different method of cooking.
Once the initial idea takes shape, it’s time for Execution. This is typically a very iterative process, meaning that it involves cooking the dish, tasting it, and seeking feedback. Then they put everything together, taste the combination, and then try it out on others, but that varies depending on their style and how comfortable they are with what they’re creating.
Good chefs will also typically be thinking about plating at this point, and how the dish should be arranged and presented. “I often hear that we eat with our eyes”, although I think it’s more accurate to say that plating is sort of an introduction to the dish.
Assembling a Menu
Is really an impressive skill that I think goes under appreciated. It involves repeating all of the above, not just for a single dish but for an entire array of them, all of which have to individually sound enticing and balance one another. Creating an entire menu involves balancing a ridiculous number of factors, like:
* The style of the restaurant
* The season (what ingredients are fresh)
* The balance they want to strike between different types of dishes.
* The general price point they need to consider for their target audience
* The veriety of specific ingredients etc
Chefs spend their entire careers leaning how to do this well, and there is always the opportunity to get better.
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I’m chef ssentongo Geoffrey