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Everyone, meet my new best friends. IMAGE CREDIT: Condé Nast

When I think about one of the times in my life where I had the smallest amount of time to access creativity – high school – one outlet stands out: cooking. It started with an elective I took sophomore year, Principles of Food Preparation. In the grind of an ambitious and exhausting academic schedule, Food Prep was a welcome oasis to play around with ingredients, flavors, methods of cooking, and what I liked to eat. It also led to a brief foray in cake decorating, a medium that worked perfectly for someone who cannot draw but (a) has great handwriting and (b) loves frosting.

Years later, I’m being pulled back to that time in my life through the wonder and pure joy of Bon Appétit’s YouTube channel. All credit goes to my longtime platonic partner-in-life-crimes Ryan Manning, who has been attuned to this special corner of the internet for a while now and introduced me to it over Thanksgiving break. In this kitchen, staffed by the cooks and chefs who develop the recipes for Bon Appétit’s print and online publications, some amazing food comes to life from engaging and passionate people. And, as the title suggests, it’s also been illuminating to look at as a workplace driven by, and encouraging of, creativity.

This week and next, I’m going to analyze the BA Test Kitchen by my own tenets of creativity, pointing out where it aligns…and how you could encourage some of the same where you work!

Allies, Advocates, and Activators

By my definition, having allies, advocates, and activators in the creative process means having people in positions of influence who not only support creative ideas, but help you troubleshoot them, advance them with their authority, and present opportunities for creators and their ideas to succeed. In the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen, these roles come to life in a number of different ways.

I love this story about the genesis of one of BA’s first longform content outings, It’s Alive with Brad Leone, as shared with Man Repeller last October:

Back in 2016, the Bon Appétit video team was producing straight-forward, three-minute recipe spots for YouTube. During screen tests, the test kitchen manager, Brad Leone, couldn’t stay focused. But Alex Grossman, then-creative director, thought he was funny, and sent a camera guy to follow him around for a bit anyway. The resulting footage, of Leone making his own kombucha, was long and sloppy. It sat untouched for several months. But then a producer named Vincent Cross saw something in the tape that no one else did. He cut it into a nine-minute video that was unlike anything the channel had published before, full of spills and swearing and fast cuts with irreverent commentary added via text overlay by graphics editor Matt Hunziker. (emphasis added)

That key moment, of someone with influence being open to something that no one else saw, makes a difference when trying to generate and execute creative ideas. Higher ups were skeptical of what Cross, Leone, and Hunziker brought to the proverbial table. Even as this rambling, in many ways unhelpful, video didn’t initially seem to be consistent with BA’s brand, it did get views. So on it went, and on it goes. As Hunziker told Man Repeller in the same interview, “It was a mess […] but people liked it. So we just kept making messes.” And those messes have endeared people to these chefs, their work, and ultimately the BA brand.

Another more familiar example of allies, advocates, and activators in action comes through in small ways on Claire Saffitz’s series Gourmet Makes. In it, the classically trained pastry chef reverse engineers recipes for popular foods like Twinkies (her first video), Pop Rocks (perhaps her most hated), and Mentos (which, as a viewer, may have been the most fun). A trademark of Saffitz’s role as host and tester is frankly the frustration she feels around getting a patented process right with the tools she has. In those moments, she frequently calls upon the reassurance and counsel of BA’s Video Food Director and Stylist, Rhoda Boone. Senior both in role and in age, Boone consistently finds a way to encourage Claire to keep going. In the same way that big swings with executives can keep a creative vision moving forward, so too can those small nudges reminding competent people that they have what it takes to push through tough challenges. More on that later, by the way.

Broadmindedness

As I define it, broadmindedness is the willingness and natural ability to look outside of what’s normally being done to address a challenge. Borrowing from other fields, industries, or disciplines makes our world a more deliberately interconnected place, and Bon Appétit has succeeded by being willing to do that.

There was a peak period of “hands making things” as a trend in food video. It always reminded me of Thing from The Addams Family, but with more family members and working together toward a delicious common goal. I appreciate Adam Rapoport, BA’s editor-in-chief, for succinctly naming the problem with those videos: people like to watch people, not fingers.

“They’re kind of boring, they’re not stimulating and they’re predictable. It was not creatively rewarding. As an industry, we’ve gone beyond that and it’s gone more to the personality videos, to more narrative.”

Now, is teaching people to cook with the help of engaging personalities new? Nah. Just ask anyone at the Food Network, QVC, HSN, or PBS. But what is new is creating such an intimate window inside the testing proceedings of a major publication, on YouTube. And doing so in an edited but unpolished way is especially new. I don’t know that anyone would call Gourmet Makes a predictable show (even the length of episodes varies based on the difficulty of the task, a quality I value hugely as a creative), or It’s Alive boring. They’ve taken the best parts of a few different approaches, and cobbled them together to yield a successful outcome. Not unlike, in a lot of ways, the act of cooking itself.

Collaboration

It’s always easier to endure the ups and downs of work life with friends. So it’s a genuine delight to see that the test kitchen staff at Bon Appétit seem to get along so well. It shows up in small moments, like when people will gather around Claire’s station to offer her counsel at the start of a Gourmet Makes and feedback at the end, or in more intentional ways, like when Brad will cohost an episode of It’s Alive (which centers on the wide uses of fermentation) with Priya, making yogurt from her family’s recipe. Being able to not just work alongside creative people, but also truly collaborate with them, is a gift not afforded to nearly enough people in their day to day work.

The peak of BA collaboration comes to life in their series Making Perfect, in which the entire team works together to create one exhaustively tested and delicious concept. Prior seasons have focused on the perfect Thanksgiving meal, and the perfect pizza. A season’s worth of episodes will have chefs pair off, testing and perfecting each component of the process. By season’s end, the team can celebrate having collaboratively crafted an end product that they all can be proud of…and that viewers can attempt to recreate for themselves.

 

As this first half of the BA Test Kitchen creativity analysis comes to an end, I’d encourage you to ask yourself (or your team) the following questions that could spark or maintain your creativity:

  • Allies, Advocates, and Activators: do you have relationships with people of influence? What ideas could they help you push through? And who serves in the role of day to day encourager on your team? How could you fill that need?
  • Broadmindedness: what’s become boring or predictable in your work? What field, industry, or creators might have a way to enliven that experience?
  • Collaboration: does your team feel free and willing to collaborate? What blocks, interpersonal or institutional, might be getting in your way?

 

Part 2 is on the way; stay tuned after the MLK holiday for more! Feel free to share links of your favorite videos or votes for favorite chefs in the comments 🙂