Dine: Recipe theft is on the table

Chefs and diners dish over what's inspiration and what's culinary plagiarism

At a handful of restaurants around Pittsburgh, diners can get a bowl of porky, complex tonkotsu broth laden with pork belly, scallions, bamboo shoots and slow-cooked egg similar to the ramen served at Momofuku in New York, the place that introduced the era of hipster soup.

At restaurants elsewhere, patrons dig into dishes in which liquids have been transformed to gelled marbles, or meat has been prepared sous vide, a method of partial cooking followed by vacuum-sealing and freezing. These processes can be traced back to Spaniard Ferran Adria's now-closed El Bulli.

Pittsburgh chefs aren't the only ones who serve dishes inspired by their counterparts. The magazine Toronto Life ran a roundup of restaurant dishes inspired by Momofuku founder David Chang, "one of the most copied chefs of the last decade."

A decade ago, riffs on dishes from other restaurants weren't as prevalent or recognizable. Yet the proliferation of social media has contributed to the blurring between inspiration and copying, as diners routinely see components, techniques and entire dishes from pioneering restaurants around the world.

While access to information has made borrowing easier, it has also raised questions about boundaries. The rise of chef-focused restaurants and their celebrity have transformed cookbooks from instruction manuals or coffee-table food porn into a way of laying claim to cuisine.

Kevin Sousa of Salt of the Earth, Station Street and other restaurants suggests social media offers a democratic check that curtails chefs from ripping off each other.

"Social media has changed everything," he said. "If someone rips someone off, everyone knows."

More seasoned chefs dismiss accusations of copying. "Chefs learn from chefs. What do they steal?" asked Michel Richard of Washington, D.C.'s Citronelle and Central and the upcoming restaurant in the New York Palace hotel, once home to Le Cirque.

"I'm pleased when chefs use my recipes. I would be very sad if they did not."

Why this debate now?

International chef Jose Andres of the ThinkFoodGroup empire attributes the debate's origins to one person, Ferran Adria. As he told Eater.com, "Ferran is the reason we're talking about this," he said of the chef who is widely credited with having inspired the Modernist era.

Local chef Brian Pekarcik of Spoon in East Liberty concurred. "Modernist cuisine and the school of David Chang" are the reasons we are discussing what some call culinary plagiarism.

While no one is demanding a chef cite his source for an ancient French dish such as cassoulet, those passionate about dining continue to debate whether and how chefs should credit pioneers.

The fate and direction of Modernism drives debate. Will Modernism be marginalized the way fusion cuisine from the '90s has been? Youth and egos are also factors, since many pioneering chefs are younger than 35, their careers works in progress.

Shades of gray

This line between what's copying and what's referential has existed in art and literature forever. In "Reasons to Re-Joyce" in The New York Times Book Review last month, the author displays at length how three authors use James Joyce's writing structure and cadence in three new fiction books. This inspiration is portrayed as a tribute to Mr. Joyce, not as theft. That the same issue has arisen in cooking illuminates how it is evolving from its former trade status. In some cases, restaurant cooking rises to art.

When this debate was new in 2006, some chefs decided that ideas born in a restaurant belong to that chef, reported Pete Wells in the article "New Era of the Recipe Burglar" in Food and Wine.

Homaro Cantu of Moto in Chicago went so far as to apply for patents on his recipes. Seven years later, few restaurants have the means or the will to pursue those they believe have plagiarized their work. Patent pending militancy has mellowed, yet the discussion has not.

Chefs around Pittsburgh consider three factors critical: "You've got technique, ingredients and plating," said Mr. Pekarcik. "It's a tricky line."

"Unless you replicate a dish completely, it's not necessarily stealing," said Brandon Baltzley, a visiting chef from Chicago and proprietor of Crux, which stages collaborative dinners around the world.

He conceded: "Sometimes it can really go too far."

"Plating is plagiarism when you only change one little element," Mr. Sousa said, but he added that techniques are a much grayer area.

"If it's a new technique, I'm going to try it."

He used the ubiquity of fermentation and pickling as an example. Salt's sous chef Chad Townsend is very good at it. "Everyone right now is fermenting everything. It's so current," he said. "David Chang is doing a ton of it.

"Of course we're interested in what's current. At Salt, we try to incorporate these things subtly."

Inspiration, influences

Rather than looking to national chefs such as Wylie Dufresne of New York's WD-50 or Rene Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen, Mr. Pekarcik said he taps into his mentors. His biggest source of inspiration is Gary Danko, chef of his namesake restaurant in San Francisco and recipient of James Beard Best New Restaurant and Best Chef awards.

"I don't know that I'll ever be at that level," said Mr. Pekarcik. "He really opened my eyes."

Cure's Justin Severino, who worked at Michelin-two-starred Manresa south of San Francisco as well as The French Laundry in Napa Valley, cited training as essential for presenting original ideas that translate to the plate.

"There are some chefs who practice technique and others who finesse," he said.

"Great chefs understand classic techniques. They know how to braise short ribs perfectly. They have made coq au vin many times. Once you have that foundation, then you can vary from there."

He said training is integral to the creative process. "You get to a point where you're able to be creative or you're not."

Authenticity in addition to classical training curtails plagiarism, said Mr. Pekarcik.

"If you are cooking from the heart and cooking honest food, you're naturally making it your own."

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.


Hot Topic