Interview – Chef Michael Bennett

Interview with

Michael Bennett, Executive chef and author

What is your definition of creativity – what is it?

Taking the known and producing something totally different or umcommon. Being able to understand similar flavor profiles of different foods mix and match to create unusual or uncommon
new dishes.

But after 5000 years of cooking, it is going to be hard to do this compared to what the Chinese have done.

You need a base of culinary learning to formulate something new. You have to use what is known in techniques or ingredients and use this to go another step beyond the commonplace.

Using culinary ideals to formulate your creativity or style helps. Your ideals help you perform the next steps to innovation.

Is creativity the same as innovation?

Creative innovation is akin to being cutting edge.
Innovation is remolding or restructuring the plate or a recipe (the known) into a perceived (by the customer) better commodity. Creativity is a thought that can be perceived by the consumer or taught by enlightenment of the consumer…..by using a really good P. R. person!!!!!

Do you think it is something that people are born with (innate) or can it be learned?

Which creativity? Or talent of innovation?

Look at chef Chalie Trotter. He is perceived as a talent but if the people evaluating his food didn’t like his wild mushroom study because they don’t like mushrooms, doesn’t mean he isnt a talented cook. But the “study in mushrooms” was still innovative.

Chef Trotter was born this way. I believe creativity is something that you are born into, not with.

I think you can be taught creativity by mimicking. Other people will evaluate you from their own perspectives whether what you can create in food is creative.

Innovation comes from experimentation and having a good enough palate to judge if what you cook is good tasting. It will always be the combined that will judge you to be innovative by what is commonplace at the time.

Look at new world cuisine, circa 1992. Innovative because everyone said so. From reporters to consumers, it was judged to be an innovative. By using tropical fruits paired with common American foodstuffs.

The creativity of new world cuisine came about by finding how to pair the unknown with the known popular foods of the day. Then again if there weren’t so many Caribbean people in Miami, these chefs might not have discovered these foods to begin with. They were taught by the people who worked for them in the kitchen. So their ( perceived) creativity was taught them them by common peoples that knew how to use uncommon ( to American chefs) foods.

How important is creativity to you in your employees? How can they be creative – can you give me an example?

Very important to some of my people. The others just have to minick and produce what is needed for service that day.
My sous chef have to be able to create but they arent creative. Create for me is to do something with leftovers or extras not used from a party the day before or over purchasing.

In my previous position i had to three creativity chefs that knew how to get the most from the food available so you make better profits. Creating profits has been my requirements from my staffs
for the past decade of managing other chefs and f&b managers. Creativity in creating profits keeps all of us employed.

When you hire someone for a job, is creativity an important job requirement?

no
Creativity is honed by me. A new employee just has to have the skills to produce what I teach.

Later when they can prove their techniques – and the demand in creativity I’ll ask them for innovation.

Creativity in cooking meat dishes doesn’t work for me because we are a seafood- centric menu. So creative is cool, but great skills are more necessary.

What other things are important when you consider hiring someone (e.g., reliability, punctuality, teamwork, communication) ?

Yes, I am never late. Nor my staff. We are always under the gun so time is a commodity that can’t be wasted, so yes being on time is very important.

Skills – see above answers.

In your business, do employees work predominantly on their own, or do they work in teams?

On own after trained by co- workers. With a staff of over thrity, no one is trained by me except my second in charge.

After training we reevaluate to see if skills are proper and if any more are needed. They work together in the same areas but as individual fulfilling the needs required. Teamwork to produce plates on the line is necessary. Individual accomplishment and completion of assigned tasks is more individualistic in nature by the back of the house.

Have you ever had college students working for you? What was your experience?

yes.
One good, became my second. One not so good. Let him go because he didnt keep pace in skill development.

It is all up to the person that is hired. If they can keep up with what is demanded by me and improve to the next level they stay with me.

What do you consider important for the school to emphasize in students’ education in general (i.e., English, math, communication skills)?

for leaders very important.
For my hands on people not so much.

How important are your clients? Do they drive what you do creatively?

Of course, see my explaination about creativity and innovation above. If my menus weren’t perceieve as creative, they would not define me as a leader in South Florida cooking. I would be part of the crowd producing great food but never thought of as i creative person by most consumers.

Now if what i create is thought of as innovative then i will be set apart from the other chefs and held in high perceived esteem. So yes, my customers drive my innovation to be thought of as a creative.

How important are principles or process (skills/craft) in your profession – more important than creativity?

Principles are the culinary training or thoughts that puts us all in the same rankings as chefs. I choose to call them ideals. Skills, the amount of skills and how you can apply them to the cooking of food is what will define you as a chef and later separate you from others as those skills lead to innovation of new ideals and creative culinary works.

If you had a choice between hiring a super-talented prima donna, or a humble and reliable, but less creative, person, which one would you give preference to?

Depends on the position I hire for.

If I need an innovator, someone to bring the menu to the next level I’ll choose the primadona. His mindset will force himself to do more and better than everyone else in the kitchen. His need to succeed and be the best in the kitchen will drive him to do what I need from this position as a chef de cuisine or sous.

The lesser skilled dependable person fills almost all my other positions in the kitchen.

How can we specifically better prepare students for the work world, i.e., what would you emphasize for the employee of tomorrow to learn (math? English? Teamwork?)

Read my new book “Culture of Cuisine” (due out Summer 2011) and you will know exactly.

Ideals!

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