Implementing Innovation

Breaking down the line last week, my phone buzzed with an alert. Rene Redzepi was streaming live from Noma on Periscope. Four times listed as “The Best Restaurant in the World” (2010,2011, 2012 & 2014), Copenhagen’s Noma is famous for its modernist take on Nordic cuisine. In restaurant circles, Rene is also famous for his focus on culture. Emphasizing an importance on  the daily team meal, redesigning the kitchen workspace so his team has a view to outside, to sunlight, and to things growing. Since 2011, Rene also started the annual Mad food conference, bringing the world’s foremost chefs and food thinkers together in a melting pot described as a “mashup of TED, Burning Man, and SXSW.”  Rene is a hero not only for this, but for encouraging, even requiring creativity within his culture.

Every Saturday night,  the team at Noma convenes after service as cooks present plated versions of projects they’ve been thinking about and working on. Frequently works in progress, sometimes complete dishes, the plates are reviewed by the peers for presentation, flavor, execution and innovation. Innovation is such a part of the Noma DNA that Rene has built a houseboat test kitchen and lab to launch and track projects. Last week, we watched a young cook from Florence make risotto from koji, the molded barley base to soy sauce, and a pastry cook from the Bronx play with rhubarb. This week, a young cook from Basque country prepared sea urchin with eggs, and a cook from Italy prepared rabbit with berries.

Are these sessions solely responsible for Noma’s accolades? Of course not. The shared vision of culinary and service staffs, commitment to excellence, and an uber local, hyper seasonal approach all weigh in for a perfect mix. But the ingrained focus on creativity within the culture is one aspect of what continues to make Noma one of the most relevant and current restaurants in the world.

But Rene Redzepi is not alone in his approach to innovation. David Chang has a lab. El Bulli used to close for half the year to allow Ferran Adria and the other chefs the opportunity to brainstorm in very well documented blue sky sessions. Here in The South, Sean Brock has morphed his Anson Mills fermentation projects at McCrady’s into the Husk Workshop series in Nashville.

There’s a lot going on in cuisine these days- advancements in foraging, technique- both modernist and ancient, culinary history, agricultural repatriation. But my question to the reader is this- what is your process for creativity and innovation in the workspace? If you don’t have that food lab and you spend your entire day in the operation, or your team is convinced they learned all they need to ever know about cooking before they dropped out of culinary school, how do you innovate, and how do you implement it? Where do you keep your fermentation projects, growing things, dehydrator goodies, and where do you find the time?

I’m open to thoughts and suggestions…

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