November 2, 2012
Is cooking a creative endeavor?

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The New York Times Sunday Magazine recently published a story on the bow tie-wearing grouch Christopher Kimball of Cook's Illustrated Magazine, who is fond of proclaiming that cooking is not creative.

For many of us who love to cook and think of ourselves as devoted home cooks who are open to trying new ingredients and techniques (and maybe straying from written recipes), that could be taken as an affront. It shouldn't - because he's right. Cooking is not creative. In fact, in my upcoming restaurant review this Sunday, I touch on that point when I address the idea of consistency.

Why isn't cooking creative? Because it can't be. Let me explain. I have been keeping my eye on a new house being built in Midtown (on 20th Street near C). They are nearly finished framing the house and are ready for the windows and the rest of the finishes to be installed. Then they'll start putting in the electrical, the plumbing, the drywall and all the little details that pull it together and make it look like a $799,000 house (which is the rather surprising projected price).

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While the idea to put the house on an infill lot in an edgy/iffy part of town might be daring, or even creative, and while the neo-craftsman design could be considered creative (or derivative), the actual construction of the house is done by people who follow rules, just as cooks follow recipes. Do you really want a creative house framer or plumber? Someone who looks at the blueprints and then decides to add his or her own touches?

Same with cooks. I recently reviewed Enotria, where Pajo Bruich and crew are putting out some very creative and sophisticated food. The creativity stems from coming up with the unusual ingredients, flavor combinations and look of the food on the plate. That's great stuff. But then you have to do it 100, 200, 300 times - and it has to look and taste the same every time. That's not creative. That's a craft, a discipline. It's taking the building blocks of a great dish and executing at a consistent level.

I just got off the phone with Jeff Yankellow, head of the Bread Bakers Guild of America. We were talking about a story I am working on about the best bread in the Sacramento area and I was looking for his input. I'm going to visit all of the bakeries around here and try to rank the bread from each. He said one hallmark of a great bakery is its consistency. That wonderful baguette has to be wonderful every time the customer buys it - and wonderful in the same way. Yankellow said it comes down to experience, and managing certain details throughout the process, because an artisan baguette only has four ingredients (flour, water, yeast, salt). The process never changes. He told me it's not "rocket science." It's also not an art, as much as I enjoy baking and eating good bread myself.

What about the enthusiastic home cook who likes to wing it once in a while - a little of this, a little of that added to the pan or bowl with dashes of inspiration, spontaneity and whimsy? That's not creative either. That's called having fun in the kitchen. Guessing is not creative. It's guessing. The food will turn out differently every time. Sometimes it will be amazing and sometimes it may be awful. At a restaurant, creativity on the line is creativity at the wrong time and in the wrong place.

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.

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