In my last post, I walked readers through the first half of my Cultivating Creativity framework, as lived out through the ethos of the Bon Appétit test kitchen. After losing myself in hours of their taped footage for what felt like no reason, I later came to understand that it was giving me a real look at what a creatively supportive and thriving workplace can and should look like. (That’s the reasoning I’m working with, please don’t contradict me).
This week, I want to outline the second half of the framework, and how the work that these chefs are doing—individually, with one another, and on behalf of the Condé Nast publication—embodies a wonderful brand of creativity at work, and a kind that we can benefit from by cooking with their recipes and from their videos. Ready? Yes? Good. On we go!
As I mentioned briefly in my last post, there’s a subversive but brilliant quality to Claire Saffitz’s Gourmet Makes series, dedicated to the reverse engineering of our beloved childhood snacks: varying length. An early episode on Gushers runs under twenty minutes long, while a more recent episode on Milky Way clocks in right at forty minutes. For those who find themselves frustrated in the kitchen at times – a quality that Saffitz thankfully never tries to edit out or shy away from – the differences in runtime matter. Why? Because the harder a task is, the longer the episode. And without meaning to, the video editors at BA are teaching a crucial lesson in letting this happen.
One of my frequent, frequent refrains when working with individuals and teams on creativity: “the creative way is always, always going to take longer than you think it will.” It has to. There’s no roadmap. Armed only with a list of ingredients, the information available on Wikipedia, and sometimes a How It’s Made video, she’s charged with honoring the memory and flavor of something beloved. Even on days when she charges in confidently, there are setbacks. There are bloopers. There are moments where she wants to quit. And none of that is taken out for the sake of a polished, flawless end product.
It’s a delightful example of Austin Kleon’s “show your work” theory. Saffitz and BA have never shied away from the idea that the task set before them each episode is new or difficult. And by letting the runtime reflect that difficulty, they’re being real about how determination plays a role in doing new or difficult things. It continues to amaze me that this quality continues to be one of my favorite thing about these videos…but here we are.
In my mind, execution as a quality for creativity means being in a space where people feel free to bring up their imaginative or innovative ideas. Phrases like ‘what if we…’ or ‘I wanna try…’ aren’t immediately shot down; to the contrary, they’re welcomed as a necessary part of the process.
It stands to reason that a test kitchen would need to embrace this philosophy, and yet even beyond the original concept Bon Appétit clearly stands by this principle in their video work. In addition to the two series I’ve leaned on most heavily in these posts (It’s Alive and Gourmet Makes) I also want to bring up Chris Morocco’s “Recreating” series. In it, he embarks upon a process not unlike Saffitz’s in Gourmet Makes, but the encounters with his inspiration food are done blindfolded. With only his palate to guide him, he has no choice to lead with questions like ‘what if I?’ or ‘I wanna try…’ to achieve the objective at hand.
Morocco is prized among his colleagues for his discerning palate, and yet it doesn’t always steer him in the right direction. This matters, because even those who are highly skilled should be willing and open to ask questions, augmenting their technical knowledge with curiosity. And those who lead highly skilled teams should be equally encouraging of their capacity to ask important questions. This curiosity doesn’t threaten that knowledge; rather it can broaden it, supplement it, and ultimately bring it to its highest form.
A few weeks ago, I watched Claire and Brad make donuts for over an hour, in three parts. At any point, I could have stopped and just gone and read a book. But I didn’t. More to the point, BA could have buried this footage, never releasing it because of how badly the attempt went. But they didn’t.
Granted, some of that hour was filling time because Claire was late to the kitchen. And on that particular day, Claire was actually shooting more than one video. But a big part of that length was because a recipe they were resting actually failed, and needed to be done again. To the determination point, that footage was left in. And while I normally speak about determination and execution working hand-in-hand in the creativity process, today I’m going to pair off determination and flexibility.
It’s a necessary part of working in a test kitchen to have strategies or efforts fail. And repeated tests are how you get to the successful finding product, the ones literally worthy of the fancy photo shoots and publication in the magazine. And you get through the determination of those many attempts with a feeling of flexibility. In this particular instance, Claire and Brad had to create a whole new dough and go through an exhaustive second rising process for their donuts…while carefully eyeing the setbacks and flaws of their prior version. “Okay, this didn’t work, so this time I’ll try…” “Looking at it, I can tell [x] happened, so next time we’ll do [y].”
Determination is bolstered by flexibility; it helps guide the subsequent efforts in ways that honor, but seek to avoid, the prior mistake. Willingness to look at the missteps closely enough to learn from them is uncomfortable, and time-consuming, but they’re both the kind of people and work in the kind of environment that allow for this reflection. Do you have it in you to get uncomfortable with what went wrong? And do you work somewhere that allows for the time and energy to do so?
As with my last post, I want to leave you with some questions that could guide your creative work, or that of your team.
- Determination: it takes some time, effort, and determination to go after a creative goal. Do you have the tenacity to do it? What sort of support could help you cultivate it – personally or organizationally?
- Execution: how are you with “what if” or “can I try” questions? Are you inclined to ask them why or why not? And how about your organization? How do they treat questions like this?
- Flexibility: flexibility requires the discomfort that comes from examining our mistakes. Do you have the humility to do this when things go wrong? And does your organization give you the time and space to do so?
Any final thoughts about this walk through the BA test kitchen as an exemplar of creativity? Any favorite videos to share? Let me know in the comments!