M

Melted borders and inconsistent Grandmas – Talking creativity with chef Eric Gower

I love the question “I wonder what would happen if…?”   Having spent many years procrastinating or finding logical reasons as to why to say ‘no’ to stuff I find it a very liberating way of giving myself an excuse to do something that probably isn’t as well thought out as it should be.  I have found that the beauty of doing something just to find out what happens is a marvelous way of beating over-thinking, and self-defeating logic and has lead me on some incredible adventures.   The beauty of not having a well thought through objective in such curious experiments is that wherever they end up is just wonderful!

I recently asked myself this question when cooking from my favourite cookbook The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen:  “I wonder what would happen if I interviewed the author, Eric Gower about creativity and imagination in cooking?”  I own all of Eric’s books and, as a keen home-chef, I have always been incredibly impressed with the creativity in every one of his recipes – combining ingredients I never would have thought of and encouraging unique takes on different world cuisines.

Eric said a big YES to my invitation and we recently spoke at length on Skype on all things from challenging cooking norms, failing happy, letting go of an obsession with results and simply enjoying the creative process.  I got a wonderful immersion into the rather messy, experimental and creative world that sits behind a beautifully presented cookbook and took away some fascinating insights that highlighted to me that be it cooking, improvising, art or leadership – there are some common themes as to how we can unleash our creative selves.

Breathing new life into old ingredients
Eric is from California and is well-travelled, spending many years living in Tokyo so he has a keen interest in Japanese ingredients.  During his time in Japan he creatively imagined a whole new approach to the traditional cuisine, seeking to breath new life into old ingredients and giving birth to some fabulous new recipes.  He has also set out on a personal quest to bring the wonderful Japanese Matcha tea to a wider audience (I personally drink this on a daily basis).  However, this imaginative and innovative approach hasn’t always been welcomed and he has had to persist in the face of being confronted with being mad, bad AND wrong for the seemingly outrageous ways in which he has broken tradition.
Audio Clip 1 – Breathing new life into old ingredients

  • It upsets people.  Inevitably somebody would stand up and say ‘this is completely outrageous, you can’t desecrate Japanese cuisine like this.’
  • I’d tell them, look, this is actually a labour of love, I’m actually trying to breath new life into these ingredients by thinking about them in ways that you might not have.
  • Some of my most vociferous disbelievers or critics often became zealous believers in breakaway style because I’d somehow given them permission to do something they had been told their entire lives they couldn’t do.

Fail happy – what’s the worse that could happen?
Eric explained to me that his creative process was very, very simple – become absolutely aware of EVERYTHING that is on offer, allow novel combinations to come to mind, ask yourself “I wonder if that would work?” and if it doesn’t work – big deal – at least something has been learnt!  He told me that one of the biggest barriers students in his classes face is getting over their fear of failure and that specialising in ‘bringing stuff back from the brink’ is in fact a good source of novelty and learning.
Audio Clip 2 – What’s the worst that could happen Fail Happy!

  • You have to be able to see what you have.  Just glancing at that wall, all kinds of combinations occur to me that would never occur to me otherwise.
  • Most people have spices stuffed in a draw and you have to paw your way through to get to them, they tend to die rather quickly.  Maybe they got adventurous one day and bought a little tin of mace or something and never looked at it since and it’s got all dusty – it’s because they can’t really see it.
  • Almost all home cooks, if you average it out, have 6 dishes they cook and they just keep doing them over and over.
  • What’s the absolute worst that could happen…if it doesn’t work, big f*****g deal and I’ve learnt something from the process.
  • Students think they have to got to have a recipe, they’ve got to go right through it and do exactly what it says.  They don’t have any confidence in their own abilities so they sort of choke as a result of it.  I try to get them to relax and to realise that the stakes are quite low so why not try something and stop worrying so much.
  • The very act of not worrying about it makes you a better cook.

Measuring spoon vs. gut feel and finger senses
I was interested as to how much improvisation and gut feel Eric uses when cooking and he told me that, whilst he relies on instinct and feelings over accurate measuring tools his wife holds an opposing perspective – symbolised by the constant re-appearance of a salt spoon!
Audio Clip 3 – salt spoon versus felt sense

  • No, no, no – I never measure anything ever.  Even in baking.  I hate the idea of measuring…it’s all in the feel really.
  • I love using my fingers but my wife is constantly trying to put a little spoon in the salt and I remove it literally almost every day so I can reach in with my fingers because a 2 finger pinch of salt is a very different quantity to a 3 or a 4 finger pinch.
  • I think I still would be a very good cook if I went blind…and that’s where you want to be…I teach people to use a knife blindly..if you begin to get really comfortable with a knife the key is not looking and relying solely on tactile sensations.

Melting boundaries and inconsistent Grandmas
One of the great concepts of creative cooking we spoke about was that of ‘melting borders’ – not being constrained by the norms of what is considered truly authentic or ‘right’ for any particular style of cuisine – mixing and matching to create something that is unique.  Eric explained that seeking true authenticity is a pointless task as, even if one were to visit a number of Sicilian Grandmas to taste their authentic cooking, each would be uniquely different – the key is to learn, borrow and experiment.
Audio Clip 4 – melting boundaries

  • Because I’m so interested in an international approach to food the idea of ‘melting borders’ is a good one for me.
  • The very idea of authenticity is a misnomer in my opinion because if you drill down further and further you find there is still no such thing as ‘traditional’ cooking..they’re all going to be different because they all have very different ideas about what ‘traditional’ cooking is.  You’re never going to get there so just give up on the idea…that said, you can learn a hell of a lot and  borrow things here and there but you’ll never get there so don’t even try!

Stop worrying about results and start enjoying the process
Finally, I asked Eric for one piece of advice in nurturing and keeping one’s creative spirit alive.  His answer was simple – stop worrying about results and start to enjoy the practice and process of creating.
Audio Clip 5 – stop worrying about results

  • It’s all about the process when we get down to it.  Cooking is a practice, a lot like yoga, mediation or even law or medicine.
  • The more you do it, the more comfortable you get and the more you do it, the more you enjoy it – it’s really at the end all about enjoyment.
  • The process is where all the fun is so if you divorce yourself from results and simply enjoy the process, the very practice of doing that is going to reward you a million fold.

Feeling creative?  Feeling hungry?

Eric’s books are available from his website and all good internets.  His new book “The Breakaway Vegetarian Kitchen” is due for release in May.

If you prefer one single download of the interview, you can listen to the full version here: Eric Gower full interview (19 minutes)

  1. Maryom says:

    Well, I don’t mind exchanging ingredients here and there – courgettes and cucumbers work just as well as the original pumpkin in my marginally bizarre Pumpkin and lemon marmalade – but ‘not weighing baking ingredients’, NEVER! that’s one thing I insist on.

    1. Hi Maryom. Thanks for the comment and I love the sound of a marginally bizarre pumpkin and Lemon marmalade (I hope the label includes all of those words) I would love the recipe if you are willing to share (sc@stevechapman.org). For me the weigh/not weigh isn’t an either/or but a choice and I guess to be able to bake consistently to a pre-determined standard it is essential. I am however curious as to what novel/bizarre/disgusting concoctions could arise from being a little loser with the rules. Who knows, one may not create a pastry but may accidentally invent an innovative type of indestructible, environmentally friendly glue! 🙂

Leave a comment