“Here’s a little taste of something new the chef is working on – let us know what you think.”
That’s one of my favorite things to hear when I’m dining out because it instantly tells me at least two important things about the people behind the food I’m eating: that they like to delight and surprise their customers, and they are still challenging themselves to create new flavors and improve the food they serve each day. Those are both key to a great restaurant experience, and vital to being a great chef.
Which is why any good chef has a test kitchen; some kind of designated area or block of time where they can play around with new ingredients, explore their latest inspiration, or just refine and improve and rethink the dishes they’ve been cooking for years. It’s a chance to riff off of other members of their team, to improvise and experiment, and practice new techniques in an environment where failure is okay.
In fact, failure is sometimes the goal of a test kitchen. Even a home cook learns that the best way to really get to understand an ingredient or technique is to fail with it repeatedly, usually in different ways and different reasons, and with each failure we discover a new limitation that, in turn, helps us more clearly see where the sweet spot of success lies, and a new dish emerges.
This is essentially the Goldilocks principle at work; with every variation we learn what leads to a result that is undercooked or bland, when a dish is burnt or overseasoned, and only with those extremes do we know understand for sure where our perfectly cooked, balanced flavors will come through best.
A good chef will go through dozens if not hundreds of variations of these variations for everything they make, learning how to dial in the best proportions of seasoning, of heat, of time, and how do adjust those to meet the variations of their ingredients every time they cook. The same goes for brewers making new beer, or winemakers with fresh grapes; for farmers looking for the best yield and the best flavors; for painters and photographers looking for the right mix of color and light; musicians looking for the perfect delivery and tone.
And of course, it applies to writing, where the real work is the iteration. Refining and reworking a page sentence by sentence to make sure the idea holds, that it’s not undercooked or overseasoned. The best way to know when you have good writing is to spend time on the writing that is less good, push the boundaries of voice and tone and plot and—
So I like to think of this space, my blog, as my test kitchen, and my goal is to put out at least one new dish every week. Each post is like a little something to snack on—sometimes salty and crunchy, othertimes rich and heavy, often just airy and simple and familiar—and I leave out on the bar to see who tries it. Often it just kind of sits there. Other times people reach for it and pass it around and I try to figure out why.
But as time goes on, and I continue to refine my work and learn to express myself better, I am also gaining experience that will make me more confident and better at putting the ingredients of a story together. I’ll know how much seasoning is needed to express a mood, how far to stretch a metaphor, or when I’m in danger of serving an idea that is overbaked.
And you’re welcome to come on into my test kitchen anytime and have a taste. Sometimes you’ll get a remnant of scraps I wanted to use up, or maybe you’ll get an early sample of something bigger I’m working on. No matter what you think, this chef appreciates your feedback, and hopes you’ll be back for another meal soon.