I am a huge sucker for food and cooking documentaries. It’s really fascinating to watch fantastic chefs creating mouthwatering dishes while working in harmony with their staff and orchestrating their kitchen like a maestro. I see a lot of similarities in the way designers and chefs work. Chefs have personal and professional paths that we can relate to as designers. The way they truly care about their customers, their attention to detail, and their endless striving for finding the right methods and techniques. Apart from all of this, what resonates with me the most is their process-oriented philosophy. They constantly challenge themselves to find the right tools and experiment endlessly with as many cooking techniques as possible in the journey of crafting their own signature flavor. This reminds me of our process as designers.
As a part of the consumption boom, fine dining has become a phenomenon and a serious endeavor for a lot of people. To meet rising expectations, chefs have started to put their hearts and souls into their work to create a perfect end-to-end experience, rather than just a delicious dish. They choreograph the plate to present the food the right way, they curate the whole experience, including being seated, waiting at the bar, and picking up the check, to support the sensation they want to create in their customers when they come to the restaurant. Similarly, designers strive for end-to-end thoughtful experiences rather than just pieces of software. In both fields, this is where craftsmanship and creativity meet with great mental dexterity, attention to detail, and a deep understanding of human psychology.
Another thing that sparks from every food show I have watched is the journey of the chef finding his or her true colors - “the special sauce” that makes them distinct from the others. In one episode of Chef’s Table, famous chef Francis Mallmann from Argentina shares the story of how he started his cooking career in Paris (what a shocker, a chef kicking his career off in Paris). In the first decade of his career, when he starts to make a name for himself, he follows the steps of the giants - mastering the art of French cuisine. Later in his career, he realizes that his food has become predictable and mainstream. At that point, he truly begins his journey to find the original Argentinian roots of what used to encourage him to cook when he was just a boy, what his initial passions were when he first entered a kitchen to learn cooking. In time, he finds his own path to remarkable flavors and becomes an expert at cooking meat with smoke in the Patagonian way. After years of careful experiments and iterations, he becomes a true chef with his own unique portfolio of authentic flavors.
Similarly, Niki Nakayama, chef and owner of n/naka in Los Angeles, shares her story of being born to a very traditional Japanese family in the States and starting her cooking journey in the safety net of the sushi trends. Her friends and family constantly advise her to go with the mainstream and do something that everybody already loves - sushi. This family pressure, combined with the lack of support she found in a male-dominated field meant that she did pursue the traditional Japanese cuisine. After several years, though, she decided to pursue her own dreams and found the fine balance between the traditional and the unique with an artful twist. She created her own cooking philosophy - kaiseki. She works on different sequences of tastes with different colors, patterns, and textures. Despite a more labor-intensive alchemy, bigger risks, and more uncertainty, she finally found a creative confidence that she can call her own.
When I think of these chefs’ genuine stories, I immediately reflect on our experiences as designers and how we fall into the trap of trends and commercial work. Inspiration should come from the outside, fueled by curiosity, and strengthened by action and dedication. Instead of framing ourselves and our work in style guides, templates, and the vicious cycle of trends, we should stick with our own beliefs and passions that feel right to us as designers and align them with long term/future-proof goals, objectives, and product vision. And ultimately, this is the only way to unleash your own creativity: to have the courage to break away from what’s being done over and over and find your own unique voice in your design journey.