September 29, 2009

Seasoned to perfection

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As a companion to the post on the Top Chef contestant who had a problem cooking for cowboys, I thought I'd write another chef-centric post, this one about salt.

In the October issue of Gourmet Magazine, there's an article by Grant Achatz, Chef/Owner of Alinea (a restaurant in Chicago), about seasoning. Specifically, the article is about refusing to put salt and pepper on the table, in the belief that the kitchen has seasoned the food perfectly and the chef knows best.

"As a young cook, fresh from cutting my teeth in a diner and moving on to the world of haute cuisine, I thought it was cool that the chef had ultimate control over his food. It was his or her vision, from the kitchen to the diner's mouth. I recognized the element of ego in this choice, and I admit that I liked it."

"I have heard chefs say that they cook only for themselves, that their creations are the result of selfish thinking. They are the artists, and who can understand the vision or intent of the work better? If anyone disagrees, they are dismissed as amateur, rude or simply 'not getting it.'

...But if you put the artist part aside and think of the chef as a craftsman who has the obligation to cook for the public, it's a different story. Each person dining at Alinea on a given night evaluates the food differently. Though we like to push boundaries and love to control the meal so guests experience the restaurant as we intend, occasionally we have to compromise."

He goes on to say that, every now and then, there is a diner who requests salt. This sets off a chain of events where the dishes are tasted and retasted by everyone in the kitchen to make sure they are properly seasoned. Of course they are, but the server returns to the table with a salt shaker just the same. Because that's what the customer wants.

This is a constant fascination to me: The balance between providing what the customer wants and maintaining your own distinctive style and personality.

I have friends who are artists and craftspeople who face this every day. A customer wants something "tweaked" so it reflects her own style. The artist or designer struggles with giving in, "selling out," or saying no and maintaining integrity.

Just yesterday I read this on A Painter's Kitchen:

"Showing at galleries encourages reiteration. An artist is pressured to repeat herself. Do that thing you do. Then do it again. I have clients waiting. Fabric swatches. Not very nourishing to the artistic impulse for exploration. But once you hang work in a gallery- and once you sell- art is business. The creative process gets trimmed to fit. And once you get a check for a painting you thought you'd never part with because you needed to pay a medical bill, there is a certain piece of you now missing. And you sense it. You feel the dull weight of resignation (or disgust) bulge just a little."

"...But painting for yourself is hard. In the real world there is little support or interest in authenticity. It's not even on the radar. When is the last time you heard someone say their goal was to be authentic, or their dream was to become an original thinker?

And forget clients. They want a memory post card, something to accent the drapes, or mark their anniversary."

So here's my general question to my readers today, whether you're a speaker or a chef: How do you balance authenticity, creativity and personal vision with the needs and desires of the varied audiences you serve? Please share in the comments.

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3 comments. Please add yours! :

Rich Hopkins said...

1. Realize you won't hit the entire audience in the sweet spot.
2. Consider the audience and refine humor/examples to taste.
3. Never compromise the message - the bottom line takeaway is your gift - but keep in mind the receiver while wrapping.

Have I used enough metaphors?

Amber Wallace, Santa Barbara Web Designer said...

I think it depends on what you want to get out of the relationship and how you see yourself.

My partner and I have a web and graphic design business, and we serve a variety of personalities! Oftentimes at the initial meeting you can tell what people are seeking - some have a specific idea and they're looking for someone to help execute it on paper or in pixels. Others have a broad sense and are looking for artistic direction.

In each case I approach the situation as a designer with examples of work and my skill set, and then discuss what sort of collaboration the client wants. Oftentimes great work comes from these collaborations, and other times it's our responsibility as professionals to step in and say "that's not right." It's a fine line, but I think most clients understand it, and it's our job to educate those who don't.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

I think you covered all the possible metaphors, Rich. :-) Thanks for your input.

Amber, it sounds a lot like the way I would work with an organizer when I am preparing a presentation, although I'm usually starting from an existing presentation that I customize to different groups, not starting from scratch.

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