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Odd hybrids produce innovations

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New York chef Marcus Samuelsson combined traditional Swedish cooking with ingredients from around the world to create novel dishes that made his restaurant famous.

How it happened:  In January 1995,the executive chef of Swedish restaurant Aquavit died of a heart attack. The owner immediately put the newly hired, 24-year-old Samuelsson in charge while he looked for a replacement.Weeks later, strange things started happening at the Manhattan restaurant with a respectable one-star rating from The New York Times.

Delicate and beautiful new dishes emerged: oysters with mango curry sorbet; caramelized lobster; seaweed pasta, sea urchin sausage and cauliflower sauce; gravlax and tandoori smoked salmon; and green apple sorbet with white chocolate mousse and whipped fennel cream. On top of the Swedish culinary foundations of seafood, game and preservation techniques, Samuelsson added playful and seemingly incongruous flavors.

Result: A rare three-star rating within three months.

Why? Samuelsson has low associative barriers. These are the chains of associations everybody uses to help them make sense of the world. Your mind follows the simplest path: a previous association. So, corned beef goes with cabbage, and pie goes with ice cream. Chains of association are efficient and orderly. They let us respond quickly. By the same token,they also drive us into ruts.

He makes unusual associations. Say “Pesto,” and he says “Dill.” Say “Caesar salad,” and he says “Caesar salad soup."

How can you use this way of thinking to your advantage? The next time you look at a seemingly intractable problem with a product or system, see if you can switch your chain of associations.

— Adapted from The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts & Cultures, Frans Johansson, Harvard Business School Press.

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