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Why you need to develop short term memory loss

A look at how one simple question to world famous chef Heston Blumenthal gave me a huge creative insight and forever changed dining with my wife.

If you have read my blog for any amount of time you know that I get most of my inspiration from creativity the world’s best chefs. On two different occasions I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time talking with Heston Blumenthal who is the chef at two of those world-class restaurants – The Fat Duck and Dinner.  The conversation that lead to this article came at an event here in New York City where my wife and I arrived to find a few people milling around, seemingly too intimidated to talk to the chef, and thus Heston was sitting by himself by the back of the space. Their loss was my gain and we went over to talk to him. I always find this interaction extremely interesting as some chef’s couldn’t be any more generous with their time while others are every bit the bristling prima donnas you feared they might be.  Heston was every bit the former as he happily indulged my version of celebrity worship by signed my beloved first edition of the Fat Duck Cookbook, taking photos and talking with us for a while.

During the conversation I asked a simple question that had an equally simple but unexpected answer we all could learn a lot from.  I asked him “When you eat at a restaurant what do you look for to know if it’s going to be a good experience?”. He simply answered “the butter”. I’m sure I looked puzzled by his answer so he went on to explain “When you sit down to eat a meal and they bring bread and butter to table if the butter is too cold and rock hard then you know the chef hasn’t ever eaten in him own restaurant, he isn’t watching the details and whole meal is going to reflect that lack of attention to detail”. He was completely right where this simple observation about a small detail is a much bigger bellwether of the experience to come.

This conversation had an immediate effect on my life as dining with my wife has never been the same.  At the start of every single meal, no matter where we are in the world, my wife takes her knife, pokes it into the butter to test the temperature and uses the results like a crystal ball to determine the quality of the meal to come.  If the butter passes the temperature test she will usually say nothing but I know in her head her hopes for the meal have just gone up but if it fails the test she will push the bread away and announce “Heston wouldn’t be pleased” followed by her watching the rest of the meal with a more critical eye than usual.

This whole experience is something that always makes me smile but it has been fascinating to watch her adopt this ritual with such tenacity. I think her behavior comes out the core truth that anyone designing a consumer experience in any medium needs to understand what the experience you are designing is really like for the end consumer. In this case if you are the chef then you need to eat in your own restaurant to get a customer’s perspective of the experience. I think the ability to get a fresh perspective from the other side of the experience is absolutely critical to being able to create anything great.  You need to have times in a project or even in your career where you are able to step back from you are creating, develop short-term memory loss to be able to forget all the details and excuses that have built up over the creation process, and objectively evaluate all parts of that experience. It is something that doesn’t come naturally and you have to work at it but the more you are able to do it the more you will create advertising that connects with people, web sites that people interact with engaging, brands that people bonds with, and on and on. So on your next project be sure to take the time step away from the process, sit down and see if you are watching all the details in your experience. You might just find you are serving your consumers cold, hard butter a lot more than you think.

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