Seven things food taught me about the creative process
This article is an abbreviated version of a presentation made at Iris in 2018
Those who know me, know that I have been seriously ‘into’ food for the past decade and a half. I have been an investor and founder of a premium kebab shop in London. I’ve baked, barbecued, smoked, fermented, dehydrated and sous-vided. I’ve also taken waaay too many pictures of my various culinary adventures (which you can find under the #chezkersh hashtag on Instagram)
What this interest has taught me is that there is also a huge amount we can apply from the most common food processes to the creative process.
Cooking is alchemy, transmuting the mundane, or plain inedible, into delicious parcels of flavour. It can take something downright disgusting like ‘rotten milk’, and turn it into something delicious like cheese
The creative process is the same. It takes the intolerable or inedible, and through the alchemy of imagination makes it wonderful.
So I am going to share with you seven key food processes and show what we can learn from them to make the creative process better:
Fermentation — give ideas time to brew
Salting — protect great ideas
Oxidising — expose ideas to daylight to make them stronger
Browning — give work the heat of criticism
Dehydration — remove the unnecessary
Emulsification — add one and one to make three
Balance — the final step-back and check
Beer is made from four simple ingredients: water, grain, hops, yeast. That’s it. But actually the most important ingredient is TIME
Budweiser claim their beer takes 30 days. Japanese sake takes 5–7 months. Miso is also fermented, and is often it is left to ferment for two or even three years before consumption, which lead us to our first rule…
GIVE IDEAS TIME TO BREW
Like brewing, creativity takes time. Sometimes it feels like we’re in a rush to get to something, anything out, usually for an artificial deadline. We are not giving the brewing process time to work.
But the Sistine Chapel famously took four years for Michelangelo to paint.
The Legend of Zelda — Breath of The Wild cost $100m (Forbes), had 1000+ crew, sold 8m copies and is widely considered a masterpiece.
It also took six years to make — and ran over by two years!
As producer Eiji Aonuma said:
“This was a development process where on numerous occasions we had to say, ‘Sorry, we need more time’… a lot of problems got naturally resolved over time.”
How many of us would be brave enough to do the same?
Meat is like a sponge full of water and when you heat it up, it’s like wringing that sponge. Scientifically, the proteins contract, forcing the juices out
By salting meat, muscle proteins are naturally dissolved so they lose some of their ability to contract when cooking.
Less contraction leads to less internal moisture being squeezed out, which in turn leads to juicier, tastier meat in the final product.
In short: salt protects the meat from heat. And that leads to our second rule:
PROTECT GREAT IDEAS
We’ve all been in situations where great ideas come under attack from the heat of client or account team expectations. These expectations have the ability to ‘squeeze’ all the juice out of ideas, rendering them dry and tasteless.
We can look to ‘salting’ as a way out of these problems.
A good example of this is The Cadbury gorilla:
Phil Rumbol, director of marketing at Cadbury took the initial idea to his bosses.
They said: ‘Let’s get this right. You want to make an ad that’s three times longer than a normal ad, has got no Cadbury’s chocolate in it and there’s no message?’”
“YOU ARE NEVER SHOWING THIS,” they said
Rumbol, confident the ad would “rekindle the love” among consumers, commissioned it anyway. In the background he set about persuading his colleagues, while director, Juan Cabral, got to work.
It became the nation’s favourite advert. It was a gold winner at Cannes, and responsible at the time for a 10% increase in sales.
Black tea and green tea start life as the same leaf (camellia sinensis), the difference is that black tea has been ‘oxidised’ through contact with air.
Oxidising is the same thing that turns cut apples brown.
The Chinese discovered that through oxidation, black tea has a stronger flavour and much longer shelf-life than green.
EXPOSE IDEAS TO DAYLIGHT TO MAKE THEM STRONGER
Exposure to the oxygen of other people’s opinions — internal, or of the consumer — can make an idea stronger, tastier, as well as more enduring.
This campaign was responsible for shifting the entire brand from being something you drank while ill, to a dynamic sports drink. From “Lucozade aids recovery” to “Lucozade replaces lost energy”.
The ad was based on a traffic light concept — that Lucozade will help you go from red to amber to green.
The agency needed a sportsman — any sportsman — to appear in the ad. They chose record-breaking decathlete, Daley Thomson.
What they weren’t counting on was that the public couldn’t give a fig about the traffic lights. But they LOVED Daley, and he appeared in a succession of Lucozade ads.
Point is, they let the public lead them, it was only exposure to air that led to this classic series of campaigns.
Browning, or more specifically the ‘Maillard reaction’, is a chemical reaction that gives browned food its distinctive flavour.
Seared steaks, pan-fried dumplings, biscuits, breads, toffee, roasted coffee, as well as many other foods, undergo this reaction.
In the process, hundreds of different flavour compounds are created. These compounds, in turn, break down to form yet more new flavour compounds, and so on.
BROWN YOUR WORK WITH THE HEAT OF CRITICISM
We’ve all seen bland creative. It’s just like the last one we saw. Same-y
One example is the ‘this your that’ cliche.
If you’re sensing a little sameness, why not try creating a Maillard reaction. You can introduce more flavour into a project simply by adding heat.
- Question the creative: “Why have you done it like that?” “What does that mean?” “Isn’t that a bit like that other thing?”
- Speed things up: “I need 10 more by tomorrow”
- Get more teams on the job.
- Buy some time to keep it on the heat longer.
In his book, ‘Creativity Inc’, Ed Catmull the President of Pixar and now also Disney talks about what it takes to make great creative.
One of the tools that they used is what they call ‘The Brainstrust’, to “push towards excellence, and root out mediocrity.”
“Early on, all of our movies suck. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them… go, as I say, ‘from suck to non-suck.’”
They literally roast Pixar movies until they’re done
One example of this is Pixar’s Inside Out:
The film is set in the mind of a young girl named Riley Andersen, whose parents have moved from Minnesota to San Francisco. Riley has to adjust to radically different surroundings.
Helping her are five personified emotions — Anger, Fear, Joy, Disgust and Sadness.
Inside Out gets a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes , won an oscar for Best Animated Feature, and grossed a worldwide total of $860 million
But it wasn’t always a success.
At one point there were up to 24 different emotions running around! Kevin Nolting, editor of the film, estimated there were seven versions of Inside Out created before it even went into production.
It was up to Pixar’s “Brain Trust” who kept the heat up until it was done.
One of the commonest things chefs do is to take water out of food. Roasting veg, frying crisps, sun-drying tomatoes, salting cucumbers, making beef jerky, are all examples.
REMOVE THE UNNECESSARY
Dehydrating is about taking out everything that is unnecessary and leaving behind just the tasty stuff.
An example of this is is “Dicketts’ Finger” which sounds like a real ale, or a medical condition. But it isn’t. It’s a technique named after this guy, long-time Saatchi creative director Simon Dicketts:
When showed a headline, he would get out his finger and start covering up words. The idea is that if you don’t miss a word you’ve covered over, then you don’t need it.
We mostly think of emulsions in the context of painting and decorating. What you may not know is that mayonnaise is an emulsion too. So is milk. And so is butter.
Simply put, an emulsion is a suspension of two liquids within each other that would not naturally mix. Like oil and water. To get a stable, permanent emulsion, you need to use something to hold the drops of opposing liquid together and prevent them from separating. This “something” is called an emulsifying agent.
ADD ONE AND ONE TO MAKE THREE
Here’s an advertising classic that puts together some remarkable elements
The “Tango’d” campaign is one of the most famous British ads ever made
Idea — you get a slap of orange when you drink Tango
Build — the slap of orange is an actual orange guy who slaps you
Build — they’re being watched by football commentators (Ray Wilkins being one, RIP)
Build — voice of Gil Scott-Heron at the end
They added one plus one plus one and got 6!
So, to finish, any dish is a combination of flavours and processes. No-one wants to eat just a bowl of mayonnaise.
In cuisine it’s always balance that is important. It’s the concept of LAGOM in Sweden, meaning “just the right amount”. “in balance”, and “suitable”
Famously in East Asian cooking, they balance according to the Asian principles of Wu Xing and the ‘five flavours’: Sweet, Sour, Salty, Spicy, Bitter. These also align to the five elements of Wood, fire, earth, metal and water.
And so it is with creative.
THE FINAL STEP BACK. IS IT ALL IN BALANCE?
The balance between surprise and familiarity, humour and moving. Between words and images. Between product and brand messaging. Is it all aligned?
A good example of this is The Beatles’ ‘Strawberry Fields’.
John Lennon had been listening to an early version of ‘Strawberry Fields’… and he decided it needed to be heavier. So they totally re-recorded it at great cost.
But listening back to the early cut again, John realised they had gone too far. He preferred the original opening bars.
Trouble is they had been played in different keys, at different tempos and the arrangements were radically different
The engineer Emerick and producer George Martin found a technical way round the problem and the iconic track was born. (Listen at the one minute mark to hear the join).
Lennon said “Strawberry Fields Forever” was his highest achievement as a member of the Beatles.
So, next time you’re looking at a bit of creative, and you can’t work out how to move it forward ask yourself, is it in balance.
In summary, here are seven tools to help you through the creative process. If you’ve got any ideas for others, please get in touch.
Matthew Kershaw is MD, Content at Iris.
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