Every time I get the opportunity, I ask great chefs this simple question:
What does innovation mean to you?
This year at the International Home and Housewares Show, I was able to watch Chef Aarón Sanchez at work, and then chat briefly with him. His response to the question: “What does innovation mean to you?” is shown below. Give it a watch and join me below the video and I’ll share my thoughts.
Chef Aarón was true to his Buddhist beliefs. His short and sweet answer hit on a theme that I’ve heard from other chefs, namely, going back to the roots, understanding where you are and where you can go. There is both constraint and open-ended-ness to “understanding where (your roots) take you.” Inherently the roots have a potential energy. They provide the foundation from which innovations can grow. At its core, this statement is about understanding your raw materials, about their potential, about how they can be manipulated to get the results you want. This doesn’t just mean actual brick and mortar substances. It also applies to philosophies and ideas. This is especially true if you want an innovation to fit in your portfolio. If you want your innovation to be recognized as having ties to certain roots, you need to understand those roots.
At first when he said, “Always use the best ingredients,” I was stumped. Was this supposed to be a koan? What do good ingredients have to do with innovation? And then it hit me.
The questions isn’t “what?”, it’s “why?”
Why are the best ingredients important?
It’s a question of fidelity. If ingredients are poor, if the raw materials are poor, people experiencing the innovation may not get what the innovation is trying to say. A milk flavored with a gentle herbal blend will not convey subtle flavors if the milk is old and sour. That innovation will be rejected. It’s not that the innovation is a bad idea. On the contrary, it may be a great idea, but because I didn’t use the best ingredients, the innovation in the glass doesn’t resemble the innovation in my head. Something was lost in the translation from idea to reality.
It’s important then for innovations to have a level of fidelity that is appropriate for what needs to be communicated/experienced. This can only occur if the ‘ingredients’ in your innovation are the best. My maternal grandmother used to say with regards to cooking: “Put good things together and it’ll be good.” This doesn’t mean that if you take 2000 of the best ingredients and stir them in a pot they’ll taste good. No, it is about context. Combine good things, in the appropriate way, and the flavors in your mind will be faithfully reproduced in the eating experience.
This, interestingly enough, closes the loop and brings us back full circle to understanding one’s roots. You can’t be true to your understanding of your roots, and communicate innovations that come from them, if you don’t use the best ingredients.
What do you think about Chef Aarón’s philosophy on innovation?
I want to thank you, Chef Sanchez, for putting up with me and taking the time to chat. You were most gracious and considerate, even with multiple people and commitments pulling you in myriad directions. You were being true to your roots, and you only used the best ingredients. Thank you!