Complexity and Innovation: Lessons from elBulli

Cooking up new ways to do things

Good chefs know a lot about innovation in complex environments as they prepare meals for their customers. We can learn a lot from watching what they do and how they do it.

There is a renaissance in the food industry that is underway where local, seasonal foods and attention to regional specialties are replacing a homogenous generic set of flavours and dishes. Yes, we still have our fast food chains, but traveling to different cities in North America, it is refreshing to see that difference is beginning to replace the same-old-same-old. While there are arguments to made for how local food positively impacts flavour, economic development, sustainability and environmental responsibility, one positive is not efficiency. Cooking local, organic or ethically all add layers of complexity to meal planning and preparation as certain foods are simply not alway available and some require serving in very small windows of time.

For these reasons, chefs and their kitchens are ideal case studies for innovation and complexity.

Perhaps nowhere is this more true than at elBulli, the restaurant often considered to be the best in the world with its chef, Ferran Adria, considered to be the best as well.

Chef Adria was recently interviewed for the Harvard Business Review where he spoke of the innovation process at elBulli and how that applies beyond the kitchen. In that interview, he places a high value on the concept of creativity and how it is nurtured through teamwork. When asked about how this collaboration and creativity produces innovation, Adria replies:

First, if it opens a new path, and second, if it excites you.

That second part is what excited me (after opening a new path, so I guess this interview was innovative!) is the emphasis on personal engagement. Yet, this engagement also requires collaboration with others who think differently. Complexity requires exposure to diverse perspectives to address issues sufficiently and to this end, Chef Adria clearly advocates for going beyond the discipline:

It’s also very important to be connected to other disciplines: the world of art, of design, of science, of history. When an architect designs a building, he has to work with engineers and people in new technologies. It’s the same in cooking. We need experts in other fields. We turn to science, for example, to explain the “why” of things. Exploring and getting to know things is fundamental to ensuring that you don’t shut yourself off in your own little world.

The other key ingredient in this chef’s innovation pantry is focus and attention. Through the interview and others I’ve read of him, I see great attention towards the craft of cooking and keeping mindful attention on the task and doing it with a team.

It’s like any work. You need concentration and professionalism. And it’s very important to have passionate people with their own imagination. I’m the boss, and I pick the best team. We have 40 people in the kitchen and five managers with a great deal of focus. Everyone participates. And you create an environment that gives them space and the sense that they’re taking part in something very important. You can only improve the ones who are already good; you can’t do anything with the bad ones. Talent and capability lie with the person, not with the teacher.

The last point is worth noting too: teachers aren’t everything. I’ve been critical of our teaching environments and the way we structure formal learning as being too teacher and curriculum-centred and not creativity centred.

Finally, Adria emphasizes taking time to learn and integrate. Even when a famous restaurant that is open only 6-months a year, the creative pressures are still too much. More is needed. So, elBulli is closing. When asked why, Adria stresses the following:

The pressure to serve every day doesn’t offer the kind of tranquillity necessary to create as we would like. For the model we’ve had, six months a year was sufficient, but our new format will require a different focus. The most important thing is to leave time for regeneration. It’s important to “oxygenate” ourselves a bit—to let ourselves recycle and to adapt our vital and mental rhythms to a new set of demands.

In the health sector, we do the opposite: cram as much in as possible, despite the health implications.

So perhaps there is even more we can learn from the restaurant business and its lessons for innovation. Time to start cooking.

** Photo Cooks in an Italian Restaurant Kitchen, 1959 from Seattle Municipal Archives

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