Thursday, February 4, 2010

Recipe Creation and Menu Originality

There have been many occasions when I go through the process of recipe development and testing that I catch myself formulating a flavor profile, technique or ingredient combination that feels too close to a dish that I had either previously cooked (another chef’s recipe) or enjoyed at a restaurant.  Every time that this happens, I normally take a step back and methodically go through the process of breaking down my own recipe to avoid any confusion/misinterpretation.  This is not to say that I haven’t tried reproducing a familiar flavor combination in a dish, but sometimes certain lines between what can be deemed artistic plagiarism or inspiring tribute are muddy at best.

There are many different situations or arguments for trying to establish a specific set of guidelines for proper ethics when it comes to recipe creation.  In many cases, it would be asinine to argue plagiarism for recipes that have been developed and published for a thousand years (e.g. pizza – trust me, everything done to/for pizza has already been done somewhere else).  I would argue that there are specific situations that are questionably legitimate at best.  I fail to believe that seeing Oysters and Pearls Sabayon on any menu other than The French Laundry (or Per Se) would be anything less than culinary hackery. 

Many times though, I do understand a restaurant/chef’s desire for creating a dish based on another dish’s inspiration, but these new dishes are normally subjected to reinterpretation and tinkering.  One of the issues that exists in a copycat industry (not by design) is that people are too keen on current trends and often too empowered with a lazy self-justified approach under the philosophical guise of “letting the food speak for itself.”   Clearly, you are going to be more prone to seeing multiple versions of something as mundane as Shaved Asparagus Salad or your early 2000’s explosion Tuna Tartar.  I sense you can argue that these examples play more along the lines of a lack of originality than piracy, but lesser cases have been argued and won in musical copyright infringement.

One of my favorite examples of clear cut creativity came from an anecdote in a written piece on Grant Achatz (New Yorker, I think) – who upon discovery that another chef had done something partially similar to his new concept, decided to nix the entire idea altogether.  By nature, many chefs are very guarded with their original recipes and techniques, but within the trade, there is also a desire to share and be open with their work and their discoveries. 

I’m not trying to imply that rustic/classic cooking is not creative and beautiful in its own right because making ingredients taste great or perfecting a recipe whether old or new is already a feat in itself.  Traditional cooking is what satisfies us and makes us go back to all our familiar places/dishes, but for those who want to continue to approach food as means of progressive artistic expression/creation may have to look outside of their current surroundings for new exposure and ideas.  It would be nice to see some people venture out of a comfort zone. 

Here are a few guidelines I like to generally follow:
  • classically defined recipes and family inherited dishes are all fair game and can be done without any reservations
  • classical dishes reinterpreted are fine, duplicating the reinterpreted dish is not
  • all new techniques developed and shared publicly.published are open to use
  • no more than a combination of three techniques and or primary ingredients from someone else’s recipe should be duplicated
  • if the ingredient is served in the same exact technical form, all other supporting ingredients must be different
Here are a few basic restaurant menu rules I wish were followed:
  • Grilled chicken breast salads should be forsaken from menus
  • Edible visual garnishes only matter if they assist in taste or texture in any way
  • Anonymous “Mixed Green Salad”
  • Abusing asparagus as the first sign of spring
  • Bad coffee costing more than $2
  • “Throw the Vegetarian a Friggin Bone” dishes (not literally)
  • “Throw the Vegans a Friggin Bone” dishes (wouldn’t be on this list if it was literal)
  • Fried Calamari in a non-Asian restaurant
  • Tuna and salmon on 90% of menus (except for sushi; sadly, only 1 out of 10 restaurants cook salmon/tuna properly)


  1. I think he meant "New Yorker" Magazine

    Also - I'd be curious to see some examples of what your describing here - what's a dish, where you got to the send and said "this is too close to dish Y"

    How would you change it? When is it changed enough?

  2. Ah, oops. I see. Nevermind.

    From a cocktail perspective, I am sick to death of originality, if the presenter has not mastered the basics first. If you can't make me a decent Manhattan, what gives you the idea that I'd be interested in your Muddle-fruit-and-herb-a-rhina?

    Similarly, with food I will pay a fair amount for simple things made well, rather than "inventive" glop made poorly.

    That said, your list of "restaurant don'ts" just about encapsulates my list of pet peeves: Inappropriate garnish, bad vegetarian/vegan dishes, awful coffee, and poorly cooked fish.

    So few restaurants have good coffee that it is almost a joke.

  3. Yeah, jesse the Achatz dish in question was a caramel baloon of sorts, i recall reading this too, but from some other source. It worries me that my restaurant is offering the obligatory chicken breast salad, salmon (albiet loch duart) and tuna. as well as unspecified mesclun mixed salads. even though those are all just kind of standards for those unwilling to try anything different. might be time for a revamp.

  4. Wow this post really hit the right spot for me!

    After making the winter restaurant rounds, I found myself coming across some exceptionally similar dishes, and frankly getting bored. "Inventive" doesn't have to mean complicated, but seeing someone actually think a dish through before serving it to the diner is refreshing.

    That said, I think SPQR is doing an amazing job of serving thoughtful, inventive Italian dishes without copying what else is available in the City. Have you been recently?