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The Culinary Arts: A Model for Innovation

11/14/2013 12:55 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014
  • Matthew Robinson Author of Knickerbocker Glory: A Chef’s Guide to Innovation in the Kitchen and Beyond

If no new perspective is brought to our innovation efforts, it is difficult to bring new ideas to life. How we make new connections between related and unrelated thoughts and ideas is at the foundation for innovation and no new connections can be made without new information or stimulus. When we look in unexpected areas we can find a treasure trove of information and inspiration that can help embolden our statements of purpose, our ideas and iterations. One unexpected place to look for inspiration is the culinary world.

The Culinary Arts: A Source of Inspiration

Even if your world is not of a culinary nature, many of the ways the food world innovates can be applied to non-food products and can help make the process of innovation more digestible.

Fusions and Transformations

The greatest innovation in the culinary arts is Fusion Cuisine. Bringing together different cuisine and different cultural aspects of food creates endless amounts of inspiration for new products and opportunities. These mash-ups are not just new dishes, but new experiences.

How can the fusion idea be applied elsewhere? It can start by including fusions in our statements of purpose. Instead of a simple statement like "Create a website that is a more positive social experience for users," give it a fusion twist: "Create a website that has the same social experience as dining in your favorite restaurant." Each makes you think differently. Fusing different ideas helps create new ways of looking at an issue.

The food world also harnesses the power of transformation. Any dish can be reformatted and experienced in many different ways. A salsa turned into a soup, a stew made into a sandwich, a piece of cake remade into an ice cream sundae. How can a transformation or re-design help in other fields to create new and innovative experiences?

Closely Related Information but off the Eaten Path

Molecular Gastronomy, the application of food science to create new and different food experiences, is a great example of using information from related areas as a foundation for innovation. Although obviously related to food, techniques from food science were not, until recently, applied directly in restaurant type settings. By bringing the world of food science from the lab to the kitchen, innovation abounds where raspberries can be spherified, ravioli filling is self-contained and foams are plentiful.

This can be applied to other industries by identifying closely related areas. For example, what could the auto industry learn from the airplane industry? What could tennis equipment learn from surfer gear? What could grocery stores learn from department stores?

Molecular gastronomy can also be, as the 'molecular' name implies, reductionist. Can a product be made smaller? Could separating product components be more engaging or make better experiences?

The Rules Broken

In the culinary world, rules are broken a lot. Perhaps you have been to a restaurant where the menus are edible. Perhaps you have been to a restaurant where surrealist thinking to food is applied -- that is, the food delivered to the table looks one way but tastes another.

Breaking rules can bring a whole new perspective on how products or services can be offered. Could we imagine a grocery store without cash registers? Banks with no cash? A bar or restaurant with a subscription only service? Each one breaks a fundamental rule we associate with those products or services. Under what conditions could these products or services be successful when not governed by these rules, and how can they be made better? What rules does your industry run on and what innovations can be created by breaking them?

Co-create

Another source of inspiration from the culinary arts is the shear amount of co-creation. Chefs get together in kitchens around the world to work together and trade tips and techniques. On food blogs, recipes, food ideas, and new food philosophies are being developed, shared, iterated, commented on all the time. Innovation and co-creation go hand in hand and engagement with consumers and experts is a great way to find new inspiration, create new ideas, bring new ideas to life, and iterate until a successful innovation is achieved.

The Culinary Arts: A Model for Innovation

There is much that can be learned from the culinary arts and applied to make innovation fun, approachable, and can help with grasping simple innovation processes.

A Culinary Inspired Innovation Process...

  • Answering "What's For Dinner?" -- creating statements of purpose.
  • Finding Inspiration for a new dish -- finding external stimulus.
  • Writing a Recipe -- creating new ideas considering product characteristics and experiences.
  • Cooking -- bringing ideas to life.
  • Iteration -- re-making/tweaking until everything is just right.

Plus, in the kitchen we can fail fast, which is important for keeping the momentum of innovation up and pushing forward.

A great challenge for businesses is engaging colleagues in and creating sustainable innovation environments. Using the culinary world as a model for innovation is a great way to be successful and energize any innovation effort. The way to an innovators heart may just be through the stomach. Bon appetit and bon prise d'initiative!

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