Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why We Need Test Kitchens in Our Lives

There is a funny thing I have noticed in the 16 or so years I have lived in Louisiana –In Louisiana people are either talking about food, eating, or eating while talking about food.  There is good reason for this—the food down here is so good!  Still in spite of this cultural bent towards conversations about food I was quite skeptical when I first came across Food Network thinking that I would never spend much time watching a network completely devoted to food.  Well… I was wrong.  It turns out that the Food Network became one of my favorite channels on the cable landscape. 

One interesting concept that you run into on Food Network is the test kitchen.  While the test kitchen is first and foremost a place of experimenting with ingredients and cooking techniques, it is also a place of connection with others.  The truth is it doesn’t matter how good a chef thinks his recipes are if they don’t connect with anyone else.  This is why one of the most crucial components of a test kitchen is not simply the oven and the utensils but rather the few trusted folks around the chef that will offer their honest and constructive feedback. 
Chef Bobby Flay

If you have ever watched the Food Network program Throwdown with Bobby Flay, you may have a bit of an understanding of how a test kitchen works.  Throwdown is a show that pits Chef Bobby Flay against award-wining cooks from around the country on their signature dishes.  Each episode begins as Flay is presented with a cooking challenge which could be anything from jambalaya to burgers or crepes.  After a little research and planning Flay ends up back in the test kitchen where he begins experimenting with the recipe, while trying to add his own unique touch to these fairly standard culinary staples.  The moment of truth, however, is when flay passes the selected dish around to his assistants and asks for their feedback.  His assistants offer him their perspectives on his cooking highlighting both the perceived strengths and weaknesses in the food.  Sometimes they give him a thumbs up on the flavor and presentation while other times they send him back in to tweek his recipe further.  Finally Flay will then take into consideration all of the feedback and rework the recipe a couple of more times until they are confident in the recipe.  What this process shows me is that even though Bobby Flay is one of the top chefs in the country he is still working to get better and he has surrounded himself with people who will help him to that end.

Over the years I have come to learn the importance of having test kitchens in my life.   My test kitchens don’t really have much to do with food but rather other aspects of creativity like songwriting, blogging, playing music and even speaking in front of people.  A few years back I really began to feeling like I needed to take writing for my blog much more serious.  The topics I had been choosing were okay but I wanted to get better at the way I communicated the ideas with others so that I could connect better with readers.  So I began taking the approach of the test kitchen.

The Test Kitchen approach meant that instead of simply writing something quickly and then publishing it immediately, I would spend a few days writing and revising and then, when I finally felt like things were in a good place, I would pass my essay around to 2-3 trusted friends who would critique everything from how it was written to punctuation and grammar errors.  Sometimes this process was a bit painful (especially realizing how bad my punctuation was initially) but it was also very helpful.  Having a test kitchen with my writing has helped me become a better writer because I am not left to my own, often skewed, perspective on things.  Not only have I taken this approach with writing but with songwriting, music performance, public speaking, and yes even cooking.  One great aspect of the test kitchen approach to creativity is that when you involve others in the process the creativity actually grows as others bring their thoughts and perspectives into the mix.  There have been several times when I have started with a simple idea that wasn’t communicated very well and by the end of the test kitchen approach, with the input of others, the end product has evolved into something much richer and textured and much more transcendent than I could have imagined at the beginning.

If you do anything that is meant to connect with other people then you really owe it to yourself and others to get a test kitchen going to help you get better at the connecting part.  This is one aspect that a lot of creative people kick against yet the reality is that it doesn’t matter how amazingly creative one is if that creativity doesn’t connect with others in a meaningful way. 

  • Do you have any trusted friends in your life that you bounce things off of?
  • Do you find it hard to invite the input of others into the creative process?
  • How have you grown from the help and input of others?

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