Innovation in Haute Cuisine

One of the most exciting arenas of innovation is in the world of haute cuisine.

Posted Oct 03, 2014

One of the most exciting arenas of innovation is in the world of haute cuisine. You really can't get away from the foodie scene with celebrity chefs on TV, hit movies about the journey from rags to riches via food trucks, and even if you aren't a foodie, you probably have dozens of friends who are.

Fast forward five hundred years, and we can all now eat better than kings. True, various governments are still trying to prevent us from eating delicacies like foie gras and blowfish, but in general, we can enjoy foods that even Henri IV could only dream of. Cuisines from around the world, fusion foods, molecular gastronomy. It’s really a brave new world for your palette.

I recently had an interesting dining experience, dining at one of the world's finest restaurants with the head chef explaining the innovation that went into each dish. And so, like an ersatz Anthony Bourdain, I showed up at Frantzen in Stockholm (which made it to #12 in the definitive list of the world's 50 best restaurants).

They arranged for me to sit with the head chef, Jim Löfdahl, who explained the design and conception of every dish, using a pen to point out interesting features of the dishes. He was a fountain of culinary knowledge, even explaining things like the history of butter - which wasn't invented by the French, but by Vikings, who would transport it on their ships, in barrels of salt water, wrapped in seaweed. He clearly and eloquently explained that their primary inspiration was the search for ingredients - all provided by local, artisanal farmers and sustainable fishermen. For example, they are constantly searching for the most delicious lobsters from the coldest waters, the crispest and most flavorful vegetables, what have you. I wasn’t bored for an instant, because Jim and crew have mastered the art of culinary storytelling.

Anyway, back to the meal. They served me a total of 17 dishes, in a sort of Swedish kaiseiki without a meatball in sight. A few dishes are worth mentioning…

The amuse bouche consisted of several small mouthfuls of heaven, including a lingonberry & apple macaroon with blood crème and foie gras, that provided a perfect acidic balance with a distinct Scandanavian accent.

The fourth course was a small langoustine from the Faroe Islands (supplied by a fisherman named Ingmar Johansson), that was simply seared and served with a crème fraiche with bleak roe from Kalix and an emulsion of the brain and liver. Jim made a point of how Ingmar would catch only 25 per day, fishing in the coldest waters possible, and would drive them as quickly as possible back to the restaurant and place the tank optimally in the truck bed to maintain the temperature. It was delicious.

The ninth course was scallop, with truffle and eggs, followed by a seaweed and mushroom broth. It was exquisite, and this is hard to pull off with my tastebuds, after having tasted Michael Mina’s seared scallop with foie gras specialty. The scallop was cooked in the shell and served with freshly grated truffle, a few drops of yuzu and topped with a primeur egg (a hen's first egg) emulsion. The dish is an obvious tribute to Alain Passard, under whom Frantzen trained at L’Arpege in Paris. It’s an amazing sensation, as the flavors of the scallops and the truffle unfold, and end in a creamy crescendo from the egg. Talk about a happy ending!

This dish teaches us everything we need to know about how to innovate.

To examine the innovation within this cuisine, let's start with this “infographic” I created about innovation - which I will append below – that explains the 5 S's of startup success: the core requirements of spunk, seeing, spark, spine and simplicity... plus a bonus requirement of story telling. This restaurant has achieved each of these requirements.

And the sixth bonus requirement, storytelling, that's one they've totally mastered as well! Every dish has a story behind it – Frantzen has mastered the art of storytelling to give each bite a context and adds romance to the ingredients and flavors.

But the requirement of core creativity is the one that is most interesting. Whereas some restaurants will “deconstruct” dishes – like inverting a BLT sandwich, using an ideation technique we can reframing by inversion, this restaurant innovates via core ingredients as its inspiration and never veers from the mission of insuring that the dish tastes amazing. As a result, these innovators at Frantzen have successfully created art you can eat. And like a Tibetan sand mandala or a Burning Man installation, this is art that is meant to be creatively destroyed by consumption.

So the next time you wonder what it takes to succeed as an innovator, spring for dinner at the kind of restaurant that will inspire you to be creative. Bon appetit!

[Note: This is an installment of a new series, called “Innovation is Everywhere” – which notes and celebrates innovation in not only technology, but every facet of modern life. If you have a great example to share of innovation in your business arena, please let me know!]