When creating new recipes, some chefs take the phrase "culinary arts" literally by picking up a pen before picking up a single utensil. We talked to four Picassos of the kitchen to uncover how sketching helps their creative process and takes their gallery-worthy plates to the next level.
Flynn McGarry, GemDrawing is a way for McGarry to figure out issues with a dish before he even cooks it for the first time. He determines how he might cut the protein or the produce, where components might lie on the plate and how much of each ingredient should be involved. "It's a way to start my brain working," he shares.
Ideas are quickly rendered on paper with a pen, whatever is handy. He isn't precious about the rough portraits, which almost always end up in the trash.
This amuse bouche was inspired by the idea of using large sunflower seeds to make small tarts mimicking sunflowers, which would be presented on a field of seeds. Sunflower butter fattened up the pastry shell, which was piped full of earth-toned elements: chicken liver mousse, corn bavarois and chanterelle mushroom purée. Tender raw sunflower seeds were arrayed on top.
"This dish was inspired by the look, so it took a while to get it to taste the way I wanted it to," McGarry says. "It took a lot of tweezer work and we peeled a lot of sunflowers, but the dish finally worked the way I envisioned it."
Jesus Nuñez, Sea Fire GrillThis graffiti artist-turned-chef relies on both sets of skill to craft hyper-colorful dishes that pop off the plate. "The visual aspect is very important," he says. "After all, the first bite is always with your eyes."
Using Sharpies and plain white paper, Nuñez draws up the dish he's imagining as he talks his chefs through his vision. "The sketches are just the first step," he says. "Then we taste it and see what is missing."
This octopus presentation takes its cues from a classic Galician preparation with potatoes and paprika. That was too simple, so Nuñez complemented a grilled tentacle with a rainbow of garnishes—ruddy Romesco sauce, verdant pea shoots, purple potatoes and yellow cherry tomatoes. "The only thing that changed from the drawing to the finished product was the amount and quantity of each ingredient, and how much charcoal flavor we put in the octopus from the grill."
Once a dish is finalized, he takes a picture, which goes into his archives alongside the initial etching. Last year alone he created and cataloged roughly 1,300 dishes. As if that wasn't enough, he is creating a series of large-scale canvases using spray paint and acrylics, which harken back to his days before the kitchen.
Eddy Leroux, DanielFirst comes the idea, and then comes the drawing on his iPad Pro. "The good thing about the tablet is that you go over and over the sketch until it's the final version," Leroux says. "After all, if I don't have a clear sense of how it's going to be on the plate, we're losing time."
Once the pixels are all in place for the dish, Leroux emails it to his team. The next day there's a discussion of the concept and a division of duties. Even after the dish has been finalized, it evolves throughout the season. And though it will only be on the menu for a maximum of eight weeks, Leroux permanently files his digital drawings so he can pull them back up for reference whenever need be.
His travels, his training and what's fresh guide Leroux as he crafts new dishes. This one got a spark from buckwheat butter by Le Beurre Bordier, which crusts the scallops and goes into truffle-fortified sauce dotting the plate. Sunchokes three ways—puréed, fried and confited in brown butter and cherry vinegar—and cress salad complete the Instagram-ready presentation.
Ryan Ratino, Bresca"I think I'm terrible at drawing," says the chef, who keeps a half dozen medium-sized notebooks on hand to jot down ideas.
His dishes almost always begin with a list of ingredients. In this case, quail or squab, wood sorrel, rhubarb and spring onions—a combination inspired by a dish he ate at Restaurant A.T in Paris. Once he finalizes the flavors, Ratino creates a quick draft to figure out the proportion of each element, their placements and the dish's overall aesthetic. "This way I have a better visual, rather than just trying to put it together in my head," he says.
This creative process is infinitely helpful for Ratino. Finished dishes usually appear similar to their drawings and give his team strong models as they figure out how to execute them. Since he is so focused on the visible aspects, Ratino constantly reminds himself that looks aren't everything. "Just because an ingredient isn't stunning or beautiful doesn't mean that it doesn't taste delicious," he says. "I've been working on not over touching things, just utilizing them as they are naturally."