Home Thinking Aloud The Culinary Arts: A Model for Innovation In Business

The Culinary Arts: A Model for Innovation In Business


by Matthew Robinson, author of “Knickerbocker Glory: A Chef’s Guide to Innovation in the Kitchen and Beyond“, and creator of TheCulinaryExchange.net

If we do not bring any new perspective to our innovation efforts, we have a difficult time bringing new ideas to life. How we make new connections between related and unrelated thoughts and ideas is at the foundation for innovation and no new connections can be made without new information or stimulus. It is not only important to have new information. Where this new information comes from can be equally important.  It can come from anywhere, but often when we look in unexpected areas we can find a treasure trove of information and inspiration that can help embolden our statements of purpose, our ideas and iterations.

Since we always need to be innovating to survive, we must also always be on the hunt for new sources of stimulus that will create the foundation for the next big innovation.  One great and unexpected place to look for inspiration is the culinary world.  The way to an innovator’s heart can be through the stomach.

The Culinary Arts – A Source of Inspiration.

Even if your world is not of a culinary nature, the food world is a source of inspiration and great model for how to innovate.  Many of the ways the food world innovates can be applied to non-food products and, at the same time, can help with making the process of innovation simple and, well, more digestible.  In cooking, new inspiration is everywhere.  Here are a few examples of where the foodies and food professionals gets their stimulus, how they innovate, and how you can apply it to your world.

Fusions and Transformations.

The greatest innovation in the culinary arts is Fusion Cuisine.  Without a doubt, bringing together different cuisine and, by default, different cultural aspects of food, creates endless amounts of inspiration for all variety of new products and opportunities. It is not only the fusion of different foods, but also the fusion of cooking techniques, which adds to the possibilities.  These mash-ups are not just new dishes, but new experiences made at the many fusion restaurants that exist today.  The fusion idea has even taken root in our breakfast pastry with the German doughnut and French croissant coming together to create a very popular food item, the Cronut™.

How can the fusion idea be applied elsewhere?  It can start by including a fusion in our statement of purpose at the beginning of our innovation effort.  Instead of a simple statement like Create a website that is a more positive social experience for users, give it a fusion twist – Create a website that has the same social experience as dining in your favorite restaurant.

Each makes you think differently. Here is an example for a process: Reduce Cycle Time 50% vs. Reduce Cycle time 50% by utilizing racing pit crew efficiency. This is a surefire way of facilitating the fusion of different ideas and creating a new way of looking at an issue.

Of course, a classic fusion between products could also be a starting point.  Looking beyond the food world, what fusions within related areas could be brought together to create a new innovation?  We have seen the computer and phone fused together in not just smart phones, but also with VOIP.  There are many more out there and many more to be discovered.

The food world also harnesses the power of transformation. Any dish can be reformatted and experienced in many different ways.  A salsa turned in to a soup, a stew made into a sandwich, a piece of cake remade into an ice cream sundae.  With flair and thoughtfulness, any dish can be reshaped into something new with tastes similar but experience different.  This is the 80/20 rule applied to foods – 80% similar but 20% different.

How can a transformation or re-design help in other fields to create new and innovative experiences? Consider earphones worn like ear rings or a glucose monitor that you wear like a watch.

Closely Related but off the Eaten Path.

Molecular Gastronomy, the application of food science to create new and different foods and food experiences, is a great example of using information that is in the food world, just not in the realm of what is typical for a restaurant or meal occasion.  By bringing the closely related world of food science from the lab to the kitchen, innovation abounds where raspberries can be spherified, ravioli filling is self-contained and foams are plentiful.

This can be applied to other industries simply by identifying closely related areas.  For example, what could the auto industry learn from the airplane industry?  What could tennis equipment learn from surfer gear?  What could grocery stores learn from department stores?  From here new information can be gathered, new connections can be made and new ideas can be created and brought to life.

Molecular gastronomy can be, as the ‘molecular’ name implies, reductionist.  It follows then that the idea of the deconstruction is alive and well in cooking. Deconstruction in cooking is when the component pieces of a dish are cooked separately then served on the same plate individually so the components can be experienced in a variety of ways in one sitting. Experiencing something in a variety of ways can lead to interesting innovations.  A deconstruction can be applied in many areas.  How can a product be made smaller?  Would separating the components make for better or more engaging products or experiences?  By deconstructing, could an interface be made easier of more efficient?

The Rules Broken.

Part of any great innovation process is the ability to break the rules.  In the culinary world, rules are broken a lot.  Perhaps you have been to a restaurant where the menus are edible.  Perhaps you have been to a restaurant where what we might call theatrical gastronomy, like applying surrealist thinking to food, has been presented – that is, the food delivered to the table looks one way but tastes another.  One example is the use of miraculin, an ingredient that makes sour tasting foods taste sweet. Another example is the advent of savory ice cream.  Imagine the fun that can be had.

Breaking rules can bring a whole new perspective on how products or services can be offered.  The first step is to understand what rules bind different products or services.  Then the innovation can begin. Could we imagine a grocery store without cash registers? Banks with no cash? A bar or restaurant with a subscription only service? Each one breaks a fundamental rule we associate with those products or services. Under what conditions could these products or services be successful when not governed by these rules, and how can they be made better?  What rules does your industry run on and what innovations can be created by breaking them?

In the same way as using broken rules, we can turn things on their head by putting vastly different lenses on our products and services by getting stimulus from unrelated areas.  Although challenging, this can help can create very different and winning innovations.  What if chocolatiers learned from jewelers? Chocolates would be displayed by like diamond rings. When we take pages from different places and break the rules, new connections can be made and our imaginations and innovations are stretched.


Another source of innovation inspiration from the culinary arts is the shear amount of co-creation that is always occurring there. In the food world, this happens on many levels. Chefs get together with chefs in kitchens around world to work together and trade tips and techniques. In the food blog world, recipes, food ideas, and new food philosophies are being developed, shared, iterated, commented on all the time. Innovation and co-creation go hand in hand and engagement with consumers and experts is a great way to find new inspiration, create new ideas, bring new ideas to life, and iterate until a successful innovation is achieved.

The Culinary Arts: A Model for Innovation.

There is much that can be learned from the culinary arts and applied to make innovation both fun and approachable including help with grasping simple innovation processes.  At some level we all understand food and have some experience with it. Answering the age-old question: What’s for dinner? is a great way to practice creating statements of purpose for innovation. How we find and apply stimulus for cooking a new dish or creating themes for a meal can be applied to other external areas. And, the creation of a dish on the stove is a great model for preparing new ideas, bringing those ideas to life with layers of flavor, taste and experience, and then tweaking those creations until they are just right.  Plus, in the kitchen, if we fail, we fail fast which is important for keeping the momentum of innovation up and pushing forward.

A great challenge for businesses is engaging colleagues in and creating sustainable innovation environments. Using the culinary world as a model for innovation is a great way to be successful. So take from the food world and energize any innovation effort. The way to an innovators heart may just be through the stomach. Bon appetit and bon prise d’initiative!


Matthew Robinson is the author of the new book Knickerbocker Glory: A Chef’s Guide to Innovation in the Kitchen and Beyond, with contributions from chef, recipe developer and cookbook author Andrea Lynn. He has spent 17 years in the food industry as a scientist, spokesperson, and product developer. He is the founder of exCLAIM International, a nutrition science and claims strategy consultancy and creator of TheCulinaryExchange.net, an online destination for information regarding innovation in the culinary arts.