How Inspiration Shapes My Meals
Anyone who sees my social media undoubtedly notices that it is filled with food related posts. Food is a big part of my life. On most weeknights you will find me coming upstairs from my basement home office to feed my family. For me cooking is as much about feeding my creative as feedling my family’s nutritional needs. And that creative side does not allow me to simply put food on a plate, no matter how it tastes. My inner artist pushes me to try new foods and new techniques. When I sit down to decide how to compose a dish, it goes beyond the confines of a recipe, it draws inspiration from a diversity of sources.
I have fond memories of my mother and grandfather toiling away in the kitchen, always happy at what they are doing. Some family legacies are jewelry, place setting or even an armoire. But my family legacies all surround food. To this day I still have several Dutch ovens from both generations that I use on a weekly basis. Even a few tried and true family recipes we make at holidays. But I am pretty sure the biggest legacy I inherited is this passion for cooking.
Living in the Chicago area, I don’t often have access to ingredients all year round so what drives my creativity is often impacted by availability. Whether it’s the vibrant greens of spring, the luscious fruits of summer, the earthy mushrooms of autumn, or the comforting root vegetables of winter, each season brings forth a new opportunity for culinary creativity. But my absolute favorite are the seasonal farmers markets. It is so inspiring to smell the wide variety of fruits and vegetables, to see the rainbow of colors. When I have the culinary equivalent of writer’s block, I just simply head to the farmers market and see what inspires me. Sometimes it even takes me out of my comfort zone to create with an ingredient I’ve never used before and isn’t that the best way to learn?
Fusion of Cultures
I love to eat all cuisines though I am that guy who isn’t a huge fan of cilantro. I’ve been lucky in my life to be able to travel around the world and thus my culinary exposure is quite wide. Wherever I am, I try to eat local. You won’t find me at a McDonald’s in Italy. So the idea of pushing my culinary ability to combine two ingredients, techniques and culinary traditions is quite exciting. Thoughts of matzo ball ramen, chicken tikka masala nachos or Japanese 7 spice brisket sandwiches really make me want to get into the kitchen. The sky’s the limit so the only real question is what haven’t I tried.
Media, Media, Media
I kid you not when I tell you that one of my fondest memories of college was the advent of The Food Network. I was that person who waited on hold to be on How to Boil Water with a live question. Sadly, they never did get to me. But I still watch all the various food shows religiously. I may watch a show and think about how I could do it differently. I could be on Instagram and take notice of one particular ingredient I want to focus on or see something that gives me a “lightbulb moment.” In other cases when I see an amazing dish from a restaurant, all I want to do is attempt to recreate it to do it justice. It is like learning a new foreign language just by watching TV shows in that language, but in this case that language is food.
What do buffalo wings and the Slurpee have in common? Both were culinary mistakes that turned out to be brilliant. Having no formal training, sometimes the idea in my head isn’t quite translated to the plate. But that doesn’t mean giving up. I am never afraid to try anything new in the kitchen for fear of making a mistake. Today’s overcooked risotto becomes tomorrow’s arancini. Thick and chewy mashed potatoes become croquettes. Don’t get me wrong, not every mistake works out. There have been some dishes I’ve made where I said to myself, “Wow, I won’t make that again.” But I look at every mistake as an opportunity to learn never being afraid to try. And who knows, maybe these kitchen blunders will become the new family favorites.
One question I keep asking myself is why does food bring so much joy? Ask 100 people, you will get 100 answers. I’m reminded of what the wise chef Remy, from the movie Ratatouille, said: “You know the thing about good food? It brings folks together from all walks of life. It warms them right and it just puts little smiles on their faces.” For me it allows me to see the happiness I bring to others. I make a difference through my cooking. Food connects us to past generations, it brings back happy memories. And maybe my own legacy will be in seeing my children inspired to create their own culinary masterpieces.