Writers, painters, and musicians often speak about the inspiration behind their masterpieces; the creative process for chefs is not so far removed. Artists of all kinds cite real-world muses that inspire their work, from ingredients, nostalgia, and the work of their peers to works of music, art, and architecture. Chef Ana Sortun of Oleana in Boston says, “Inspiration comes from everywhere, everyone, everything. It’s very random. It can be a person; it can be a person’s mother that I’m having a conversation with; a random thought; an ingredient that inspires me; a trip.”
For visual inspiration art and architecture easily translate into plating presentation. For Pastry Chef Ron Mendoza, formerly of Sona, the source of inspiration for his desserts is that, “I love architecture, buildings, structure." And Pastry Chef Heather Chittum, formerly of Dish, is also known for her architecturally-driven creations. Pastry Chef Boris Portnoy of SucrePunch is heavily influenced by modern art, including paintings, sculptures, and architecture. He often plays the role of the artist by sketching a dessert before creating it.
Music is another major source of inspiration for chefs. Chef Dante Boccuzzi of Restaurant Dante in Tremont, Ohio has been a musician for a number of years, and notes that “all through my culinary career there has always been a musical memory,” to the point to which the music can almost be heard in his dishes. And Pastry Chef Sam Mason has taken this one step futher with his new television show, Dinner With The Band, which combines music and cooking to demonstrate how one influences the other.
The six chefs and pastry chefs below draw their inspiration from a number of sources, from memories and travel to art and ingredients. What is your muse in the kitchen?
Grilled Branzino alla Ligure with Local Potatoes, Tomatoes, Oregano, Olives, Pine Nuts, and Ligurian Celery
Inspired by a region's ingredients
“Lovage is what started this whole dish. I was reading about traditional Ligurian ingredients and flavor combinations and you have pine nuts, oregano, tomatoes, potatoes. I also started reading about an herb called Ligurian celery—which it turns out is lovage—and they use it in tomato sauces. Finding this herb locally and being able to incorporate it into the dish is what brought it all together. It's a strong flavor, [like] celery leaves intensified. It’s in the salad that's on top of the fish, so as you eat it you get lovage, pine nuts. It’s a great summertime dish for me because it straddles the line between a warm dish and a salad. There's a salad of olives, pine nuts, Ligurian celery leaves (lovage), fresh oregano, [and] some regular celery leaves. Use the lovage sparingly—it will perfume the salad entirely.”
Sel de la Terre
Baby Octopus with Charred Pepper Vinaigrette, English Peas, Radish, and Croutons
Inspired by travel
“I went to Spain for seven days and I fell in love with octopus while I was there. I couldn’t get enough of it. The whole way they do things there, the whole style, it’s like 2 opposite ends of the spectrum in one country. Every chef is paying attention to what goes on in El Bulli, but the real food of Spain is the real[ly] traditional food. The prep is so simple—[there was] no molecular gastronomy going on with the food we had. The octopus is paired with olive oil and red jalapeño, garlic, shallots. We like to use our bread here because we have an amazing bakery. With this one we take sourdough bread to make croutons, sear on the plancha to get crispy but still soft in middle.”
San Diego, CA
Whole Roasted Brook Trout with Lemon and Herb Bread Crumb
Inspired by a memory
“Years ago when I was in Jamaica we stopped at this roadside fish market. I had this platter with a whole roasted fish in it. That vision of the fish and how proud she [the fishmonger] was of the fish is stuck with me forever.”
Los Angeles, CA
Ricotta Cheesecake with Figs and Roasted Grapes
Inspired by childhood
"My mom growing up always made the best cheesecake, it was overbaked and cracked on top but it was my favorite thing. I took that recipe and perfected it. When I was at AOC we did it with sheeps milk. It’s the signature thing we've been doing in various versions. You'll see (it) dotted throughout the menu. My mom is a really great cook and baker, in the holidays we always give away boxes of cookies as Christmas cakes. So I refine her recipes, our carrot cake is her recipe but I refined."
New York, NY
Blueberries and Popcorn: Blueberry Mousse with Cornmeal "Financier," Crystallized Popcorn, Lemon Verbena Foam, and Popcorn Sorbet
Inspired by notions of another culture
"Fresh blueberry, lemon verbena foam, popcorn, sherbet with lemon verbena. When I was first presenting it for the staff they asked me what inspired this dish. I said you know it's a classic American combination, blueberries and corn."
San Francisco, CA
Homage to Mugaritz
Inspired by art
"The first time I saw Richard Serra’s large-scale sculptures was at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain in 2002… While walking through the giant steel curves of the sculpture called Serpentine, I felt humbled by such an epic manmade structure. Chefs don’t often talk about how we appropriate and reference others chefs; this practice is a taboo subject in our industry, unlike in fine art where there is a really important dialog that is happening about appropriation… For me, choosing Richard Serra was to focus on a study of form, material, and balance. As a pastry chef, manipulation of form happens with your hands, and the only way to get better at it is to work with the material. Chocolate seemed the natural medium; much like steel it is cured by cold (wind, water) and borrowing the method of curing steel, I used iced water to sculpt my chocolate."