Eureka! Bok Choy!: When Do Chefs Create?

Fricassee of Thai snapper with frogs’ legs, porcini and ham “jus” … pheasant with blueberries and chocolate sauce … coffee-crusted sirloin steak.

These are just a few of the undeniably creative dishes that I have sampled over the past two months in and outside of New York City. Two weeks ago, while gnawing on my last frog’s leg at an excellent restaurant called Hurley’s, in Portland, Ore., I started thinking of the creative process of chefs. Not so much about how they come up with these ideas, but rather when .

Chefs put in punishingly long hours, whether in their restaurants, at the farmers market, or with their lawyers planning a satellite establishment in Las Vegas.

So when do they have a free moment to think about creating something new and exciting-which is, after all, their culinary currency? Does a chef leap out of bed in the morning and exclaim, “Bok choy! Today, I will create a new dish with bok choy!” Do ideas arise from skimming cookbooks? Watching television food shows? And once they have an idea, when do they find the time to test it?

“I think about recipes in the car,” Daniel Boulud, of Restaurant Daniel and DB Bistro Moderne, told me as we zigzagged through the midtown Manhattan traffic. “I am in meetings all day or in the kitchen; there’s no other time.”

After one of Daniel’s vehicular brain storms, he may return to the restaurant kitchen and toss his idea to his chefs.

“Then we play with it,” he said, adding, “I encourage my staff to come up with new dishes, too.”

It’s the same for Wayne Nish, chef/owner of March, whose culinary antennae pick up signals to and from his home in Nyack, N.Y.

“It’s calming,” he said, adding that he also tries out new dishes when cooking at home for guests. “A while back we were visiting friends in Connecticut, and they had in their garden the most beautiful squash blossoms. I made sort of a fricassee with them, and they were terrific-I put them on the menu the next week.”

Cornelius Gallagher, the goateed Irish wunderkind at Oceana, has found a most pleasant and time-saving strategy and locale for culinary cerebration-in bed.

“I have to have the right positive feeling,” he said. “Then I can come up with four or five recipes in an hour and a half.”

Nearly all of the chefs I interviewed said that ingredients more than anything else charge their imaginations.

“When I worked at Daniel, I was responsible for the daily specials,” Mr. Gallagher recalls. “I used to go into the walk-in cooler, close the door and stare at the ingredients for 10 minutes. Eventually, I could taste the flavors of dishes in my head.”

I walked over to Oceana recently to investigate chef Gallagher’s frostbitten handiwork. He was preparing a new dish: a beautiful, stratified terrine of heirloom tomatoes along with a phyllo cigar stuffed with smoked jack cheese and basil crème fraîche.

“The very first thing I do is think about the main ingredient-here it is tomatoes-and then build other flavors and textures around it,” he explained. “Before working on it, I sketch the dish as if it were on the plate.”

Star chef Charlie Palmer of Aureole, whose bicoastal restaurant empire calls for a numbing amount of flying, said he always carries a legal pad on the plane to write down thoughts and sketch what the new dishes might look like.

“I’ll start thinking about the seasons and come up with maybe just a couple of ingredients-like, say, polenta with mascarpone, or braised lamb shank,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a new concept; sometimes we’re just trying to improve a dish that’s already out there.” Like Mr. Boulud, he presents his notes and drawings to his staff at Aureole.

“Sometimes they do something with it; sometimes they look at it and do nothing,” he said.

Josh DeChellis, chef of Sumile, in the West Village, said that his ideas arise from ingredients as well, and then he works them out at home or in the restaurant.

“I don’t consider cooking an intellectual process,” he explained. “Recipes come about in one of two ways. One is walking through the food and fish markets and around Chinatown. Or I might smell something unexpectedly, like I did recently while hiking in the woods with my fiancée-the pine needles underfoot got me thinking of cooking steak over pine needles, with something from the earth, like morels.” Once his gastronomic knapsack is filled, Mr. DeChellis sits down at his computer with a cup of coffee and “tons of ideas come out.”

Reading, traveling and eating out enlighten Andre D’Amico of Nice Matin, who experiments at home on a captive family.

“If there’s no mutiny,” he said, “I consider the dish for the restaurant.”