Alchemist Michelin

June 27, 2024 •

7 min reading

Exploring the role of curiosity in haute cuisine

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Welcome to the regular Q&A feature where we shine the spotlight on our EHL research faculty and their current work. With a view to going behind the scenes to better understand the fascinating, impactful world of research, the EHL Institutional Visibility team catches up with an EHL researcher whose work is making a difference in both the classroom and industry.

Our EHL researcher spotlight this month is dedicated to the work of Dr. Nicole Hinrichs (Associate Dean of Degree Programs and Associate Professor of Strategy & Entrepreneurship) and Dr. Marc Stierand (Director of the Institute of Business Creativity & Full Professor of Service Management). Their recent research project unveils how learnings from the haute cuisine sector can be applied to many different industry contexts, with a special focus on the role that curiosity plays in a chef's identity and, by consequence, the creativity and potential it ignites as a means of standing out.

Definition of ‘haute cuisine’

MS: Haute cuisine - a French term meaning ‘high cooking’ - refers to the art of preparing food in a way that emphasizes quality, expertise and meticulous attention to detail. It’s often associated with chefs from top-end restaurants who are highly skilled and innovative. Much like any other discipline that carries the descriptive ‘haute’, e.g., ‘haute couture’, it involves a high level of specific practice anchored in craft that over time is elevated to a kind of art form. It is one of the few industries that has a publicly accessible system that rewards high levels of creativity, the Michelin Star.

Why did you choose to study haute cuisine so specifically?

NH: We were especially driven to study this niche hospitality area because of wanting to create active links to other industries in a way that was academic, managerial and, above all, relevant. What are the transferable skills that haute cuisine can teach? What would a CEO learn from spending time in a Michelin-starred kitchen? What patterns can be extracted from this new context? Our aim is to use innovative empirical settings to spark fresh ways of developing business angles, i.e., get away from the tired assumptions of what leads to ‘success’, and thereby place haute cuisine as an unusual empirical setting to study innovation.

MS: Chefs in haute cuisine face a unique paradox of having to fit in and stand out simultaneously. On the one hand, to be successful and earn critical acclaim they have to fit in with what critics consider ‘award-worthy food’. On the other, they also have to take risks and innovate to differentiate themselves from their competitors and better stand out in the market. Hence, we were also keen to understand how chefs gain a competitive edge through the identities they develop that in turn impact their creativity as the main ingredients for standing out.

What can managers from other industry sectors learn from haute cuisine?

NH: Haute cuisine belongs to the ‘creative & cultural’ industries; in other words, there is often a culturally ethnic or iconic aspect to the products and cooking methods used. Haute cuisine is a fascinating example of creative collaboration and co-creation. More and more restaurants are partnering with other art forms to create more immersive and memorable experiences. Thus, they prove the power of creative collaboration and breaking the mold.

MS: Bringing top level managers into an haute cuisine kitchen ignites their sense of aesthetics. Many aspects of a manager’s job are normally linked to cognitive functions, but the exposure to the sensory aspect is what develops intuition. Going from the boardroom to the kitchen puts them in a transitional state; the totally unfamiliar setting impacts their liminality effect as they try to make sense of the new environment, make patterns from it and suspend the usual thinking processes.

Most businesses ask themselves the question ‘How can we be different?’ We channeled our research specifically into looking at the essence of curiosity: what it is and how it impacts creativity as a means of standing out from the crowd. Could the practice of curiosity be used as a strategic resource? Much of our work was conducted at the 2* Alchemist restaurant in Copenhagen, where a young haute cuisine innovator, Ramus Munk, has gone on to create an internationally renowned organization that is bigger than the sum of its parts.

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What specific insights did you get from Ramus Munk at Alchemist?

NH: In his groundbreaking restaurant, curiosity is omnipresent, even contagious, and can serve as a fascinating model for many different artistic, cultural and business institutions. At Alchemist, Ramus invites the most random ideas from his employees so that buying into the curiosity mindset is a team effort – from individual to collective. No idea is ridiculed. Failure is as valid a venture as any other.

After spending a week at his restaurant, we found Rasmus and his team to be dramatically inspirational, infectious, thrilling, and at times scary, (the idea of exploring extreme culinary possibilities might be too much for the guest who was just expecting a romantic dinner out). Reacting to the lack of blood donors in Denmark, he recently launched a dessert called ‘Lifeline’ made with a ganache of pig’s blood, deer blood garum and juniper oil, served on a plate with a QR-code leading to an official blood donation page. Roll with it or run away!

MS: There’s a bold playfulness to his 29 youthful years that drives Rasmus to incorporate thought-provoking themes into this cuisine (politics, activism, ethics, CSR, theatre and humor). What other fine dining restaurant has a dramaturg on board to create a theatrical setting and a music producer to design the sonic landscape while you eat in a huge domed planetarium? The average meal at Alchemist lasts between four and five hours – you have to be open to it being more of a multi-layered experience or a ‘happening’ rather than just a meal. It is a place where you go to be inspired, and even possibly, changed.

I quote from his ‘Holistic Cuisine’ manifesto:

  • Provide dining experiences that stimulate and interact with all five senses as well as the intellect through exploring elements from theatre, art, science, and technology.
  • Challenge the preconceptions of what a meal can be through innovative thinking, curiosity, and a persistent desire to break new ground.
  • Initiate and partake in debates on social and ethical issues.
  • Provide knowledge of and insight into societies and cultures beyond one’s own.
  • Embrace and support sustainability and biodiversity, as well as the farm-to-table philosophy.

NH: There is so much to learn from Ramus’s open mindset. We took away the following transversal insights:

  • The road to creativity actually needs boundaries, they are there to be challenged and reinvented; friction is necessary.
  • Scarcity is what often brings about radical inventions.
  • Entrepreneurship = finding solutions fast.
  • Practice the art of unlearning and re-learning., e.g., ask yourself “How would things be if this wasn’t the case?”
  • Use this mantra as a yardstick for improvement “If you liked everything, then we did a poor job”.

What did your research teach you about the essence of curiosity?

MS: Curiosity is often confused as a synonym for creativity. This is misleading and not necessarily the case. Curiosity can be a precursor to creativity - or not. It can also lead nowhere, i.e., have no specific endgame or ambition, but just be a passive action in itself. However, when curiosity is encouraged and developed as a behavior pattern in the workplace, this is when things start getting exciting. An organization that makes curiosity part of its working culture is helping to drive the spirit of innovation within a framework of psychological safety.

Since every business strives to make an impact at some stage, our research suggests that curiosity could be used as a strategic resource to this end. Innovation depends on asking constant questions and a willingness not to get too stuck in habitual processes. For any organization that wants to stay on the ball, turning curiosity into an active part of the company mindset is a way forward. Since it’s more about the question than the answer, the creative interface should remain open without the expectations or pressure of a definite outcome.

What we learnt from Ramus was that although he doesn’t take himself too seriously, he takes the process of being curious very seriously. Highly creative people are not necessarily more intelligent than non-creatives, but they have an ability to unleash the curiosity process in a child-like, uninhibited manner – which often yields the most original results.

Can you explain the role of identity as a driver of differentiation?

NH: In the world of haute cuisine, success is very much determined by a clearly recognizable sense of identity for the head chef and restaurant. Top chefs are defined by their unique signature. Their sense of self is highly crafted and is reflected in everything they do: their cooking philosophy, how they source their ingredients, manage their staff, design their premises, etc.

Their identity is a constant balancing act between trying to stand out and yet needing to fit in. Some seek more recognition for their artistic and cultural contributions, while others are very proud of the hard work and years of practice as an artisan or craftsman.

As an example, Ramus Munk has built his entire haute cuisine identity around his innate sense of curiosity, audacity and sensorial as well as intellectual experimentation. He seeks out angles related to activism and ethics to prompt guests to think deeply about topics like food waste and plastic pollution – yet he also wants to be known as a chef who delivers a unique culinary excellence.

 
 

Photography copyrights by Søren Gammelmark for the Alchemist Restaurant.

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Corporate Portrait_HINRICHS Nicole

Dr. Nicole Hinrichs is Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship and Associate Dean Degree Programs at EHL Hospitality Business School. Her research interests focus on the influence of organizational and role identities in the context of strategic decisions that affect transformative change and innovation.

She regularly conducts qualitative research to examine the processes by which managers and employees develop strategies and drive innovation, and how these enable entrepreneurial success. Her research has been widely supported by grants from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF) and the HES-SO, has received awards, and has been published in international journals such as the Journal of Management and Strategic Management Journal.

More articles by Dr Nicole Hinrichs

professor-stierand-marc

Marc Stierand, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Service Management and the Director of the Institute of Business Creativity at EHL. Before joining the world of academia, he was a chef in Michelin-starred restaurants and luxury hotels. His research focuses on managerial and organizational cognition and management education and development in the hospitality context, with particular interest in personal and team creativity, intuition, and talent.

Marc has authored several papers in diverse outlets including Management Learning, Creativity and Innovation Management, the Journal of Creative Behavior, and the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management.

More articles by Dr Marc Stierand
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