For those of you who are unfamiliar with el Bulli, it used to be a guide Michelin 3 star Spanish avant garde restaurant located in Catalonia. Its trademark is stretching food creativity and food chemistry to the absolute limit. In 2011 it closed and will reopen in 2014 – not as a restaurant though, but more as a cross over food creativity think tank. Which I fully understand after having watched two hours of experimentation with vacuum cooking, nitrogen ice cooling and extracting all sorts of fluids from all sorts of vegetables and intestines. Apart from appreciating the importance of unlearning to learn I refrain from commenting about the food as such, that you can see for yourself.
No, the movie is all about innovation. I guarantee if you want to understand what an innovation process is all about “el Bulli Cooking in Progress” will serve it to you on one of its wavy silver plates. Let me give you a few tidbits (if you want the full 2 hour meal the entire movie is available on You Tube).
An ever ongoing discussion is the balancing act between thinking outside the box and doing innovation work versus thinking inside the box engaging in production and whether the two can be combined simultaneously. The solution in the elBulli case is a two step process. Get out of the production facilities (they simply close the restaurant and move to another more urban location) to open up the senses, allowing for major experimentation in order to take the radically new steps. Then, when the time is right, take the concepts back and reconnect to the production where they are combined and fitted into recipes.
Space for innovation during production is fruitful. Even though the kitchen throughout the restaurant season is very tightly run with activities clocked to the minute there is still some space left for innovation. Much of the food “production” is left to a larger team whereas the head chefs, using existing courses as basis allow themselves some room for more incremental innovation.
Radical innovation is enabled through enacting multiple viewpoints, multiple senses, total concentration and lots of experimentation.
Radical innovation is enabled through enacting multiple viewpoints, multiple senses, total concentration and lots of experimentation. Allowing me as a viewer to follow how sweet potatoes are turned and twisted into fluids, oils and eventually into stuffed meringue during constantly trying, discarding, reflecting, tasting, smelling and relentless discussing amongst the different members of the team is a great example of that.
Innovation is an emergent social process. There is a wonderful scene when one of the main chefs brings a glass of water topped with olive oil to one of his colleagues and the two of them initiate an intense ideation process about what the glass is all about. This type of spur of the moment informal encounters is crucial for ideas to move forward. At el Bulli too, where this particular concept ends up on the final menu.
The engine in innovation processes is the mix of exploring opportunities – divergent thinking, and selecting and exploiting selected ones – convergent thinking, adding some spice of reflection. These three forces act on the micro as well as the macro level. In the particular case of el Bulli periods of intense experimentation are followed by browsing through the results, discussing which ones that are mostly connected to what el Bulli is all about and finally selecting which to explore further and which that will remain in the pantry for the time being. Such occasions looked very much alike meetings at the office. All sitting around an oval table with lap tops open.
At el Bulli and many other instances, part of the value that you as a customer pay is the story of the product or service. El Bulli sells books, gives lectures and makes movies out of their work. In addition to that I hope that when the dinner guest is about to experience the lyophilized tangerine gaps looking like small boats in olive oil and ice cubes he/she is told the story about the origin of the course: the view from a simple tavern by the sea, visited by one of the chefs that was so beautiful that he wanted to recreate that experience. At that same night he all of a sudden got the instinct to drop one of the ice cubes in his drink on top of what was left of his meal creating a wonderful mix of textures. True or not but I’m sure that such a story increases the sensation that the dinner guest experience even more.
By the way, el Bulli did not sponsor me to write this article nor am I using this text as an attempt to qualify into their think tank to be. Just watch the movie.
By Susanna Bill
About the author
Susanna is the former Head of Innovation at Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications. In 2009 she founded Sustenance AB and since then shares her time between advising corporate leaders in how to make innovation happen by strengthening the innovation capabilities of their organizations, and pursuing a PhD at the department of Design Sciences at Lund University, focusing on the social processes that are beneficial for the innovation capabilities of self organizing teams. Susanna is a sought after speaker and panelist and the moderator of Innovation in Mind conference.