“It’s now or never, more than ever.”

What can the differences between an septuagenarian bluesman and a Korean American star chef tell us about creativity? Quite a lot, I reckon. Specifically, two recent experiences got me thinking about whether substance is more important than style or vice versa. Pondering the perfect balance of the two and the nature of craft, execution and presentation.

Firstly, a few months ago I had dinner with family at David Chang’s Momofuku Seibo restaurant. I’m not too fussed about fancy restaurants but this was a special occasion and I’m a big fan of Chang, his brilliant magazine Lucky Peach and his great food-no bullshit approach to cooking. However, warning bells were ringing even before the evening itself. The booking process is Kafkaesque: it involves negotiating a website months in advance to get a slot; no phone calls are allowed and getting a table on the day you want at the time you want requires a level of focus and determination you’d usually associate with an Olympic Gold Medal winner or Novel Prize laureate, not someone simply trying to organise dinner.

But I was sure it would all be worth it. I just kept thinking about tucking into David Chang’s famous steamed buns. However, while we had a great evening, the restaurant itself was a disappointment. We all appreciated the phenomenal creativity and craft that went into dishes like braised watermelon with radishes and fermented black beans, we enjoyed the soft-as-a-five-star-hotel-pillow steamed buns, we raved over the magical things Momofuku does with turnips, cucumber, artichokes, walnuts. And I was pleasantly surprised that David Chang’s famously uncompromising “no vegetarian options” policy was brilliantly compromised: the vegetarian versions of the dishes the kitchen did for me were ace.

But. Or I should say BUT. It felt like they’d lost sight of why people eat out in the first place. Talking about the philosophy behind his famous New York restaurants, David Chang has said, “We wanted to strip away all the nonsense. Do we really need a sommelier? Do we really need all the other accoutrements that you see at a three star restaurant? Our goal was not to be a three star.Our goal was to serve the best food we can. Our goal was to make the best food in New York City regardless of anything else.” Which sounds like a brilliant idea. I can do just fine without bells and whistles like heavy linen, fancy cutlery and a waiter topping up the wine every five minutes, but what was missing was the warmth and atmosphere that make a good night out. Despite the nightmarish booking process, the place was half empty all night. The restaurant is in The Star Casino which is a bit like an upmarket shopping mall and from our cramped wooden table, we could see shoppers and gamblers walking by through the bright strip-lights of the casino lobby all night. The music was a random and annoying compilation of chart hits played way too loud on tinny speakers. The food was amazing and I understand that’s the focus but the restaurant is all substance and no style; it’s missing vital elements of the eating out experience. To be honest, it’s a bit joyless.

To compare and contrast with this, I saw Bob Dylan at the State Theatre the other night. I’ve seen Dylan many times and, as ever, there were none of the peripheral elements of some bands’ live shows: no support acts, fancy light shows, big screens or between song banter. Dylan and the band come on at 8pm sharp, play the songs and finish at 10pm. That’s it. But, unlike Momofuku, it’s more than enough. Because of his arthritis, Dylan can’t play guitar these days – he’s confined to singing and playing keyboards/piano and harmonica. But even more than usual, the show was a sublime, transcendent, almost religious experience. He started with one of his later-career classics, Things Have Changed, and when he howled in a cracked, broken Blues wheeze, “A lot of water under the bridge, a lot of other stuff too/Don’t get up gentlemen, I’m only passing through”, a collective gasp of anticipation jolted through the room. A little later, another recent classic, Workingman’s Blues #2, was delivered in a mangled, broken-down form in a different key and melody to the album version, with Dylan rapping rather than singing the lyrics. Sounds terrible, right? But somehow, it was a show-stopper that surpassed the recorded version we all know and love, by a country mile. Later still, he played his beautiful minor masterpiece Soon After Midnight and we knew this was a special night. By the time the evening came to an end and he’d taken us through a set of career highlights old and new, like the couple beside me, the kids going nuts down at the front and the supremely lucky State Theatre usher who brushed something away from his eye with his sleeve as he held the door open to let us out, I was moved almost to tears.

Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, apples with oranges. Maybe no restaurant on the planet could ever deliver an experience as moving as a live performance from one of mankind’s greatest ever poets. But stripping aside the comparison of Dylan and Chang’s actual creative output and focusing on their respective presentation of their work is an interesting exercise. Both are artists at the top of their game so why does the ‘just the important bit’ approach work for Dylan but not for David Chang? Why is a Dylan song more than enough but a Chang dinner not? Why does the work of one blow people’s minds while the other comes across as self-indulgent?

I think it comes down to these artists’ understanding of their respective audiences and the parameters of their art forms. Both are focused on the purest expression of their own creativity but one delivers the fruits of that creativity it in a way that delights and the other in a way that frustrates. Over decades of performance and thousands of nights on his Never-Ending Tour, Dylan has pared his shows down to the key elements that his audience are there for. When his fans buy a ticket they want to be transported by his magical songs and he delivers that. Nothing else is required. But when diners book a table at one of Chang’s restaurants, they’re expecting more than just amazing food; they’re buying into an experience. His audience don’t come just to worship at the altar of his brilliant dishes – they want that food to be the central part of a great night out.

To bring it back to advertising, I think it’s about understanding the context of the problem, the mindset of the audience, the core of the brief. About seeing your work through the eyes of consumers. Somehow, by luck, judgement or unconscious intuition, Dylan gets that. David Chang, unfortunately, doesn’t.

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About antmelder
Creative Partner at DDB Sydney; passionate vegetarian; lover of books, boxing and Bruce Springsteen.

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