The California chef’s foundations
It was a sunny Sunday afternoon in early March and we were on the open road, driving south down California’s 1 highway.
My wife and I were out on the west coast taking our first vacation after spending the previous 6 months getting up and running in our new lives in New York City.
That day we were heading from Santa Barbara to Venice Beach, and to its most famous street, Abbot Kinney Boulevard, upon which resided a restaurant called Gjelina.
I’d heard about it a couple of times; a cosy but stylish place with an eclectic menu, a highly desirable wine list, gently lit patio, and an effortlessly chic vibe in that way only a California eatery can have.
Operated by head chef Travis Lett, Gjelina has become something of a culinary institution, with its cuisine being dubbed “new California”.
Our dinner that night at Gjelina was tremendous, but I’m not here to write about that part – I’ll leave that to the food prose pros.
Instead I’m here to write about the Gjelina cookbook we picked up on a bleak winter’s evening in NYC a couple of weeks later.
The first thing that struck me was the layout.
The entirety of the first section (more than 70 pages) was made up solely of confits, sauces and reductions (I’ll call these ‘foundations’ for the sake of this post), with not an actual ‘meal’ in sight.
Many of these foundations were surprisingly complex and time-consuming to put together. Inevitably it also took a sizeable amount of produce to get down to something pretty small and seemingly unremarkable.
However, after that initial toil and time, the newly created foundations often had the capacity to be topped up easily, and just a small amount could go a very long way.
It didn’t take long for our fridge to look like a science lab, with the shelves being taken up by my various concoctions and their thin skins of plastic food wrap.
Some of these only lasted a few days of course, but others endured for weeks or even months. A couple of those very first experiments are still going in fact.
The second surprise was the cooking of the meals themselves. Despite my initial trepidation they were invariably pretty easy. Gjelina focuses mainly on vegetable-based dishes and although many recipes require a rapid-fire and very specific batch of steps to be followed, most of them are ready to be served in only 10-15 minutes.
But the secret of these delights wasn’t in the cooking of the ingredients. It wasn’t in the individual ingredients either (although good fresh produce definitely helps – somewhat of an expensive luxury here in NYC).
The secret was in those foundations used at the base of the dishes. Shallot confit, tomato reductions, garlic sauces, and plenty more. They featured almost everywhere, and without them nothing really worked properly.
Garlic confit. Photo: Chic Eats
As I was prepping another vat of oil and rosemary-infused garlic goodness it dawned on me that this process of combining, boiling, reducing, expanding, applying and mixing is pretty similar to the way ideas work in our minds, and particularly when it comes to making something new.
Around the same time I started my Gjelina experiments I was developing a talk on biases and mental models.
The various models to analyse situations and make decisions were my range of foundations.
Sometimes they weren’t perfect, but still useful enough to apply in small quantities to get a decent result.
On other occasions they gave me an entirely new way of experiencing and thinking about something.
My repertoire of foundations when it comes to both mental models and my cookbook is still quite small. I could probably spend the rest of my days creating new ones and never perfectly hone them all. The same applies to designing, programming, just about any creative endeavour really.
But I do know two things to help get some successful results: have a decent stash of foundations on hand; and always be ready to test out something new.
Add them to a recipe, situation or an idea and you may create something wonderful.
Just remember to keep your fridge replenished regularly, and if you’re trying Gjelina’s foundations make sure you buy plenty of olive oil.