Deep Expertise and Divergence: Key Lessons from Culinary Innovation

Chefs who work in haute cuisine, Michelin-starred restaurants boast outstanding talent and craftsmanship. Is there a link between these restaurants and budding culinary innovation? There appears to be a link as all the chefs listed in the “Most Prominent Innovators” are in the kitchen of a starred restaurant. We extract some key lessons, stretching far beyond the kitchen, and investigate the role of any social environment on nurturing creativity and innovation.

This article is part of the THNK VIEWS series. We bridge theory and practice on organizing imagination and innovation by extracting key implications and offering new insights to innovation practitioners. This article is based on the research paper Creative Hot Spots: A Network Analysis of German Michelin-Starred Chefs by Florian Aubke.

Does working at a Michelin Star eatery – with its corresponding social environment– relate to innovation creation? In a recent study, Florian Aubke tracks the career paths of several Michelin-starred chefs, exploring the role of these restaurants on creativity and innovation. We extract some key lessons, stretching far beyond the kitchen, and investigate the role of any social environment on nurturing creativity and innovation.

Alvin Leung, owner of BO Innovation restaurant in Hong Kong, currently holds the top spot of Best Emerging Chef, a renowned title in the haute cuisine industry. Born in London and raised in Toronto, Leung never attended a culinary institute. Instead, he obtained a degree in engineering, adding an “interesting specificity to his aesthetics”, allowing him to reinvent Chinese cuisine through reverse engineering. As he pursued his culinary path, Leung received training from three of the greatest chefs alive today: Ferran AdriàHeston Blumenthal, and Joël Robuchon. Often described as a young iconoclast, he labels his dishes “x-treme Chinese cuisine”. In other words: Great Technical Skills + Tradition + New Products = Alvin Leung.

What does this tell us about innovation and creativity? How much of Leung’s innovative dishes can be attributed to his persona or his rather uncommon educational background? Or did his Michelin-starred mentors play a key role in fostering Leung’s culinary creativity?

First off, Aubke’s study reiterates that all culinary chefs have deep domain-specific knowledge, a much needed prerequisite for creative innovation. This is true for more types of innovation: Outliers author Malcolm Gladwell explains that many innovators experienced a breakthrough only after having developed a deep understanding of the common practices in their chosen field of expertise, famously asserting that mastering any given skill requires 10,000 hours of practice. Needless to say, experience and domain specific knowledge are key to nurturing innovation. According to critics, Leung’s “training as an engineer is manifested in everything he presents, becoming a key ingredient to his signature high-tech cooking. He puts together dishes with engineering precision, substituting ingredients and methods of cooking until perfection is achieved. A single dish can take months to perfect, discovering latest innovative cooking techniques.” Leung simply states his engineering background allows him to “think logically from composing the dishes and running the kitchen.”

Another determinant of cultivating creativity is one’s social environment, with research confirming the importance of the role it plays. Culinary chefs operate in a setting that includes a community of practitioners (i.e. other chefs) and food critics.  Social environment often judges the level of creativity, thus assuming the role of an external validator. This also applies to other industries, for instance business start-up communities, in which entrepreneurs cook up the best practices, while venture capitalists playing the role of the food critics.

However, the nature of the relationship between creativity and social environment is quite different from what one might expect. Maintaining weak ties with the social environment seems optimal to foster creativity, as strong ties often lead to having the same references and insights. Consequently, novel information, innovations, and trends are more likely to emerge in a network of weak ties. In other words, if a person has access to a diverse group of people, the likelihood of a knowledge exchange of alternative ideas and solutions enhances.

In the context of haute cuisine, it was found that three star chefs have worked in fewer restaurants throughout their career, compared to one star chefs. Furthermore, same star chefs have not worked in same restaurants. Also, chefs were less likely to collaborate with chefs from the same age group. These findings suggest that culinary chefs need older mentors, especially in their early development. After gaining sufficient domain-specific knowledge, it is best for chefs to tread their own path of innovation and further their personal development to cultivate creativity to the fullest.

The example of Syrco Bakker, another innovating top chef, reiterates these findings. Though not yet 30 years old, he is already the head chef at Dutch restaurant Pure C. After experiences working under Jean-Georges Klein and Jonnie Boer, Bakker found his creative mentor in Sergio Herman. Bakker firmly believes that his Indonesian heritage truly fostered his culinary creativity and provided him with diverse and unique sources of inspiration to add new twists and turns to his cuisine.

What should innovation practitioners take away from this? While deep domain specific knowledge is key to innovation-creation, there is much to learn from not getting caught up in the existing norms, values, and status quos in your field of expertise. Learn all there is to learn, without losing sight of what distinguishes you from others.

By Menno van Dijk & Laurie Kemp

About the authors

Menno Van Dijk, Co-founder and Managing Director at THNK. School of Creative Leadership. Menno is a Former McKinsey Director, working in strategy, organizational design and operational improvement in Media, High Tech and Energy. Functional focus: growth, innovation, digital. Was leading McKinsey’s European Media practice for 7 years. Created NM Incite, McKinsey’s first ever co-branded JV with a third party, Nielsen. NM Incite helps businesses harness the full potential of social media intelligence to drive business performance and is active in 22 countries. Work experience in most European countries, US, Australia, South Africa, China and India. Has lived in Netherlands, Australia and South Africa.

Currently finalizing a MSc Environment and Resource Management (Energy Studies), Laurie Kemp attained a BA in Liberal Arts and Sciences at Amsterdam University College (AUC) in 2013. The broad nature of the program allowed her to delve into Social Systems from various perspectives: focusing on Law, Political Science and Economics. An avid idealist and globetrotter, Laurie is passionate about social and green innovation and bottom-up initiatives seeking to empower individuals and drive positive social change.

THNK‘s mission is twofold: we accelerate the development of creative leaders from across corporate, private, public, and social sectors and from all over the world. Together, we create innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing and inspiring challenges. Dubbed by Stanford University as “the future of higher education”, we stand for creativity, business model innovation, and entrepreneurship for social impact. While a ‘B-school’ professionalizes management and a ‘D-school’ does the same for product design, THNK is a ‘C-school’ that applies creativity for positive change at scale.

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Main image: Molecular Cuisine by chef David Faure from PortoBay Events on Flickr.