“At the moment, taste doesn’t matter to us, that comes later. At the moment, what matters is whether something is magical, whether it opens up a new path.” -Ferran Adrià
You wouldn’t think that one of the most innovative chefs in the world would ignore taste at any point in his culinary process. You wouldn’t think that he would close what was regarded as the best restaurant in the world for half the year, every year. That said, Ferran Adrià and El Bulli did not earn their many accolades by doing what was expected. The same can be said for leaders in the fields of PR, social media and branding.
Watching the documentary El Bulli—Cooking in Progress, a spare, but intoxicating peek inside the rich sensory world of one high-end restaurant in northern Spain, the dominant image is one of impeccably coiffed chefs with tiny spoons tasting and contemplating endless numbers of sauces, foams, reductions, infusions and combinations. Their collective goal is to create a meal that surprises at every turn.
There are lessons for each of us from a job with one side that’s highly inventive and another that values precision, timing and control above all else:
- Creativity takes time—take time for creativity. Don’t just wait for inspiration to strike. Plan for the time, place and activity that will draw it out.
- Get inspiration from outside your field. Adrià and his colleagues draw much of their innovation from close study of nature and science—professional communicators can watch documentaries about high-end restaurants!
- Put yourself in a box. Constraints spur invention. El Bulli chefs believe in the benefits of creating themes and making rules to avoid certain techniques or ingredients. Writers of all stripes need to embrace, not whine, about the restrictions put on our work.
- Build continual change into each day. When integrating months of experimentation and hundreds of new dishes into the menu, chefs do it one recipe at a time, several each week. It allows for continual change while maintaining exacting standards.
- Don’t conflate the forces of creativity with the realities of production. In the climactic moment of the documentary, Adrià gives a speech where he explains the difference between the six months of investigation and experimentation in the test kitchen and the timing, vision and perfection needed at the restaurant. This distinction is critical every day.
Finally, 5½ – Never be satisfied. It goes without saying in the film, but if anything can dry up creative juices, it’s complacency.
We should always strive to surprise and delight in our daily work. Watching some of the world’s most talented chefs struggle through each step of their journey, it’s easy to understand why we don’t: Breaking new ground is hard.
We may not be able to take half the year to focus on improving our work, but if we can take a few minutes a day and force ourselves off the deadline treadmill, we just might open up our own new path.