Was reading the Alinea cookbook again, and Grant Achatz mentions that he was inspired for a dish by some tree roots he saw while walking with his kids through a park. He also talks about how he’s always pulling inspiration for his food from the rest of his life, and how basically, everything he sees passes through this filter of “how could this influence food?”
Reminds me of two things – the first, Shigeru Miyamoto’s descriptions of his inspiration for Zelda (exploring caves as a youth) and Pikmin (his then-recent obsession with gardening). And obviously, they’re fundamentally the same thing – someone who is so saturated by something that he breaks apart the rest of his (or her) existence and views the world through a very specific lens.
The second thing it reminds me of is a thought I had a couple months ago, but couldn’t really explain. I’d been reading a bit about how the mind processes things, and I haven’t read enough to really talk about it with any certainty, but there’s this idea of “chunking” things – creating shortcuts in how you process information around you so you don’t have to process every detail every time you see something.
Ei-Nyung used to say that she never really noticed what model cars were – basically a car had chunked to “car” where all cars were fundamentally the same, where for me, I’d chunked Mazdas and Toyotas and Ferraris and the like, then later broken up those chunks into RX-7s and F430’s. I find that the idea of chunking seems to explain the holes in my memory – how I process past events is really reduced down to a few (to me) critical details, and almost everything else appears to be disposed of. I dispose of who was at an event, for instance, while this is clearly one of the critical things that many (most?) people seem to place as a high priority.
So, the thought was this – basically, Achatz uses food as a hammer to break through the chunks. Most people look at a tree and see a tree. He understands food as flavor, form, presentation, etc., and then breaks the tree down into those things – the tree then becomes the inspiration for some aspect of the food. Miyamoto understands gaming as interaction, character, game systems, etc., and then un-chunks his world based around those things.
It seems to me that a lot of these sorts of creative breakthroughs seem to happen when you take something very ordinary, that you look at every day for weeks and weeks and weeks, and then use some “hammer” to break apart the chunks, and find some detail that’s relevant, or interesting, or that other people are overlooking. In which case, a person’s specific expertise is basically their mining hammer, and the way their brain has stored information is the quarry. You can enrich the quarry by learning new things, but until you take your hammer and break the stuff apart, you’re not really mining.