Chef as Artist or Craftsman? Blog by performance psychologist Mike Duckett

The  Staff Canteen

For his latest blog, performance psychologist, Mike Duckett asks whether we see a chef as an artist or as a craftsman.

In the work I do with chefs this question often comes up in one way or another. It is not a new question and has been debated in relation to numerous disciplines such as cabinet making, architecture etc.

Csikszentmihalyi
Csikszentmihalyi

It arises from thoughts about creativity; what is it; how do you know when you see it and how do you develop it?

It may be worth remembering at the outset that creativity has a cultural aspect. Csikszentmihalyi in his book, ‘Creativity, Flow & the Psychology of Discovery & Invention’, points out that over the centuries, as tastes change so does the regard for artists. So for example, it seems that the reputation of the painter Raphael has waxed and waned several times since his working at the court of Pope Julius 11. Whether you’re a creative genius or not seems to depend on whether you produce some tangible output that others at the time think is highly creative!

Would you regard Einstein or Newton as creative? If you were drawing up a list of ‘creative folk’ are there any names here you wouldn't include?

If so, would they go on a list headed ‘highly skilled craftsmen’?

Warhol

McCartney

Beethoven

Blumenthal

Michelangelo

Escoffier

Brunel

Perhaps there is a useful distinction between using high level skills to execute a novel idea and having the idea in the first place. Thinking about my conversations with many chefs about whether they regard themselves as artists or craftsmen, it seems on reflection that a lot depends on the start point for the creative exercise i.e. what's the challenge?

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Observing a number of teams getting into their creative mode, I have noticed a pattern of 3 creative start points each one triggering a slightly different thinking style.

What I've seen as start points or creative challenges are:

1. How are we going to move this fish dish on (it's been on the menu a long time)? This creative challenge is highly constraining because the dish will still be the same dish but with some changes of flavour or visual appeal etc. This means that you will probably be calling on already well established ideas and associations in your mind to produce what is effectively an evolution. What’s gone before will determine what comes next.

2. Please develop a new fish course - now there is far less constraint and so the creative challenge as stated will allow your mind to wander and make many associations, bringing different ideas together in new ways that might work to produce a radically new dish. However this start point will still have set you off thinking about fish and flavour combinations.

3. THE WHITE ROOM - This is my metaphor for the situation where highly creative chefs often create their most iconic dishes. It is when there are no predetermined constraints and the mental space reminds me of my photographer friend's studio, which is just a white room.

When he's in that room he has all the technology he wants, all the techniques he might need and that's it; the rest is just white, everywhere; not even any corners to crawl into!

What's he going to do with the technology and techniques?

Well, often he will start where all the great artists start and it isn’t with thoughts about the techniques or technology. It’s with a search for an answer to, "what do I want to express?" One look at Picasso's Guernica and you can see he started with the desire to express outrage at the destructiveness of war. His medium was paint, my friend's medium is photography, the chef's is flavour; texture etc.

Professor Michael West, professor of Organisational Psychology at Aston University, has an interesting idea about the distinction between creativity and innovation: “Creativity can be seen as the development of new ideas, while innovation implementation is the application of those new ideas in practice.” (Creativity at Work; Psychologist (2000); V13 pp460-464)

So, in summary, whether you’re regarded as an artist or a fine craftsman somewhat depends on the context and the times we live in. One practical thing you could do if you aspire to be the creative artist is have a careful think about the creative challenges you set yourself, because they will be the start point that determines how you think from then on.

Mike Duckett
Mike Duckett

Mike Duckett has a degree in psychology and is a member of the Occupational Psychology division, the Sports Psychology division & the Coaching Psychology Special Group of the British Psychological Society. He holds a diploma in Hypnotherapy & Cognitive therapy and is a certified NLP coach.

With over 20 years experience he was one of the pioneers of applying performance psychology to coach people in the hospitality industry to get the best from themselves, in areas such as creativity; leadership; optimism etc.

As a certified NLP Coach and ANLP Accredited Master Practitioner, Mike has clients ranging from world renowned chefs, restaurateurs & sommeliers to up and coming staff in both the kitchen and front of house. You can see more of Mike's blogs atcoachforsuccess.wordpress.com

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 8th December 2016

Chef as Artist or Craftsman? Blog by performance psychologist Mike Duckett