Foodie Underground: Constraints Breed a Creative Kitchen

creative kitchen

ColumnEven if you’re not sticking to a specific diet, constraint can breed a creative kitchen. 

“Are you a vegan?”


“Are you a vegetarian?”


“Then why do you cook like one?”

I laughed.

It’s true, most of the time my creative kitchen experiments have some element of gluten-free, raw, vegan madness, and I rarely launch into making meat myself (although I would love to master a lamb roast, because it seems like something Julia Child would approve of). But I don’t have a diet that’s 100 percent defined by one or the other.

I like attempting vegan baked goods, but I also have a hard time turning down the local eggs we get from our CSA farmer, with which sometimes bits of feathers and traces of dirt are included. If a recipe calls for butter, I’ll switch it out for olive oil, not because I have some low-calorie-I-need-to-stick-to-a-crazy-strict-diet-of-only-kale-and-lemon-wedges attitude towards butter (I do find pleasure in eating after all, and sometimes that pleasure comes in the form of lots of butter), but simply because I like the challenge. And let’s be honest, if you’re going to be consuming a fair amount of it, you might be better off with the olive oil.

Cake made with eggs, butter and flour? Follow a recipe and anyone can be a traditional baker.

Cake made with quinoa and olive oil? Now that’s a challenge.

Give someone a blank slate and they may feel overwhelmed by the options. Give someone some limits and they are forced to come up with a creative solution to work around said limits. This holds true for many domains, far beyond the kitchen. We are human beings, we like overcoming obstacles. When we finish something that was challenging, we feel a sense of accomplishment, and that fuels our desire to do even better next time. Something along the lines of, “I managed to make that AND it was good.”

A close friend who has recently been on a vegan diet for health reasons wrote an email about an unexpected effect the change in eating habits was having: “For me, my interest in cooking has been rejuvenated. Cooking without meat and dairy is challenging and dare I say ‘fun.'”


It’s fun, because success doesn’t seem like a given. Changing what we are used to is hard. The options at first feel limiting. But then, as you jump in, you quickly realize that the options are endless, albeit the limitations. And cooking should be fun. Otherwise you’d be eating microwave dinners every night.

Mastering a creative kitchen with limitations, even if they are self-induced, is like playing a game. One point for every time you don’t use regular flour, two points for trying ground flaxseeds instead of an egg, and five points if you manage to use avocado instead of butter. I don’t know what the points lead to, but if you’re competitive in nature like myself there’s a little voice in your head that says “winner!” every time you master a new level of culinary creativity.

There are the days when we just want to make the classics – I will for one never attempt to make a gluten-free, vegan version of my favorite Swedish cinnamon rolls, because they simply won’t be the same – but for all those other days, it’s important to inspire creativity. Bored with what you’re doing in the kitchen? Take out a few main ingredients. Without even launching into the health benefits of doing so (that’s another article entirely), a change in ingredients can be the kick in the pants you need to enjoy cooking.

If we don’t have fun with food, we’ll never eat well, and to find enjoyment sometimes we need to give ourselves some constraints. You never know what will happen. Olive oil cakes for example, and there certainly are worse things in life.

This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at

Image: Anna Brones

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.