Curating a Creative Future | Erick Castro
CURATING A CREATIVE FOUNDATION
Giving lectures, organizing events and discussing brand strategies are daily conversations that occur now in the lives of the modern bartender, but how are we as an industry going to experience this growth and navigate the waters ahead, without losing the creative spark and innovation that got us here. I am by no means proposing that we roll back the progress of the last decade by scaling back the opportunities now ahead of us. Instead let’s explore the dynamics of how we can maintain and grow the limits of our creative foundations.
With so many opportunities unfolding at the foot of the modern bartender, it is easy to overcommit and burn out our creative potential. This is not only due to mental exhaustion, but also because as we gain more work, it is easier to get swept up into the minutiae of contracts and paperwork, and away from the elements that made us fall in love with bartending in the first place.
It is our creative minds that provides the fuel for much of our success, and by creative, I am not speaking in regards to inventing new techniques and drinks. Instead, I mean it in the broader context of problem solving, generating concepts, discovering opportunities, and of course, finding solutions to various problems in our bars. The irony of course, is that much of what we do to further our careers — such as spreadsheets, delayed flights, conference calls– can take us outside of this creative mindset and distract us from our talents that make us who we are.
The true danger of this lies in the risk of burning out. There is only so much stress the body and mind can deal with before it eventually starts to affect our quality of work. This career burnout is often recognized by a lack of enthusiasm, reduced effectiveness, mental exhaustion, and overall loss of drive. For those of you that have experienced it before, you know how devastating it can be to your work, and how difficult to it is to overcome, if not approached correctly.
Because of these unique challenges facing us as modern bartenders, I have put together a list of habits that I have found work well at keeping my state of mind sharp and productive no matter how much I have on my plate. I hope that you find them as helpful as I have.
In our industry it can be so easy to work on recipes during the day, make cocktails all night, and then go to bed while reading a book on restaurant management. While it can be tempting to believe that this is helping us advance in our field, it is essentially making you into a one-dimensional human being, with a limited range of context, which is quite possibly the worst thing for advancing creative thought. Whether it is painting, sculpting or ballroom dance, it is vitally important to our creative minds that we have multiple outlets for self-expression. It is a fallacy of the human mind to believe that we all contain within us a finite amount of creativity; instead it grows exponentially when properly stimulated.
KEEP A JOURNAL
While many of us feel that we have impeccable memories, after time has passed much of what we remember is actually an interpretation of actual occurrences, rather then the occurrences themselves. In addition, many of the details and minor factors will have long slipped into the broad depths of time. This phenomenon is exaggerated even more once you take into account that in the bar industry many of our best conversations occur after a couple of drinks. A journal is vital, because it a literal catalogue of trials and challenges from your past alongside of detailed accounts of how you overcame them. In addition, it becomes a form of therapy, as you quickly find that writing things down allows you to get them off of your chest. And all it takes is ten minutes a night on the days that you work.
LEARN NEW TECHNIQUES & INGREDIENTS
Once you have been in the bar industry long enough, it is easy to tire of the latest and greatest trend to enter the scene. So often it is a shoddy gimmick with no substance or purpose other than to excite journalists, who themselves are understandably looking for something new to write about. Yet knocking new trends without knowing anything about them is a foolhardy practice in itself, which is why one should analyze them first and understand what the buzz is about. In the best case scenario, you became familiar with a new liqueur or technique that you can apply in your bar, in the worst case, you approached drinks from a new vantage point that afforded yourself a new perspective. Even if you discover that the trend is all hype, you can now interpret it from a point of understanding, rather than one of willful ignorance.
Of all the tips included here, this one is perhaps the most difficult to include in your daily activity, as so much of our adult lives is dedicated to preventing ourselves from making mistakes and avoiding uncertainty. But sometimes, it is important to step back and look at the world as we did before we became cynical, when we were optimistic, young bartenders. This is because it can be a good thing to think big and tackle projects outside of our comfort zone. Most people as they grow older typically become risk averse, and are thus too afraid to take on truly ambitious projects. This is not to propose that you fly off on some ill-conceived business plan, instead it is to remind yourself that the most successful ventures are usually not the safest, and that every now and then you have to make a calculated risk and jump in with both feet.
WRITE THINGS DOWN
Considering how difficult it can be to consistently come up with interesting ideas and concepts, this is something that we should all be doing without question. Whether it is in the form of a pen and paper or an application like Evernote, writing down ideas is the easiest habit to incorporate into your life, and it can quickly become a treasured resource that you can tap into whenever you hit a dead end in regards to creative activity. Not sure how to approach a Cognac drink that you are working on? Well, six months ago you wrote down “brandy, vanilla, coffee” in your notes and that thought alone might be exactly what you needed to get back on track. Writing things down costs next to nothing, yet the results pay back in dividends, so there is really no excuse not to be doing this.
With the modern bartender wearing so many hats, it is easy to get distracted and pulled in multiple directions. Because of this, it is essential that you dedicate scheduled time for research and development where you are utterly dedicated to strictly one task. For instance, why not set aside an hour to taste fruit liqueurs at your bar with no other obligations? You can even invite fellow staff members and share notes for later reference. Another day, schedule time for cocktail development with a deliberate goal, such as “I will not leave until I create three amaro cocktails.” This will help to keep you on a calculated path and protect your workflow from unnecessary distractions.
TAKE IN THE CREATIVITY OF OTHERS
This tip is definitely the most enjoyable of them –and the one that we generally do already– and that is to engage in conscious and mindful enjoyment in the work of others. While it is obvious that enjoying a meal made at a Thai restaurant might inspire you to create a cocktail with traditional Thai ingredients. It is less obvious that perhaps listening to a Ted Talk on psychology could help you to write the verbiage for your new menu. That is because the natural curiosity in us, which we were all born with, can be fed and allowed to grow by granting it the proper stimulation, and one of the best ways to stimulate it, is by forcing ourselves to be challenged by the works and creativity of others.