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Inspiration and Attribution in Cooking: How and When Should Chefs Credit Their Sources?

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Welcome to Hot Topics, in which chefs chime in on a major issue in food.

interpretation.jpeg[Illustration: Eric Lebofsky]

There's a difference between being inspired by something and ripping it off. Recently, chefs who don't seem to cite their sources have come under fire by some of their peers. Do cooks have an obligation to cite their sources, or does deliciousness trump attribution? These questions have popped up before — Pete Wells wrote of the "new era of the recipe burglar" in 2006 — but they remain on the minds of chefs around the world.

From Wylie Dufresne and Jose Andrés in the U.S. to Christian Puglisi and David Toutain in Europe, chefs have considered several aspects of the problem: what constitutes culinary plagiarism (if there is such a thing), protecting recipes, crediting sources, distilling your influences, and how to keep chefs accountable.

chang-quote-2.pngOver the summer, Momofuku's David Chang tweeted, "Wylie, René, Heston, Ferran, and Andoni give proper credit to other chefs, why can't the rest of us? We lose [the] ability to keep the past alive." When asked to elaborate on his observation, Chang explained to Eater that "much of the conflict is due to the fact that we can share so easily in the age of the Internet. It used to be that you either had to go work or eat at a restaurant to pick up on what they were doing." Now a simple Google search on a restaurant can result in hundreds of images, articles, and blog posts that highlight dishes and even explain some of the techniques involved.

Chang's main point is that he sees "a lot of people spend a lot of time developing new, really cool stuff — often not operating at a profit — and then get their new ideas swiped by someone else without attribution. We're all guilty of not giving enough credit, but there are some cases that are too obvious." He's referring to the work of the idea factories, the restaurants around the world that devote much of their enterprise to coming up with new techniques and pushing the envelope, while not always worrying about their bottom line.

The elBulli Effect

Perhaps the greatest modern idea factory of them all was elBulli, chef Ferran Adrià's restaurant in Cala Montjoi, Spain. It's kind of an old story by now: the restaurant's chefs would spend half the year in their Barcelona workshop, the taller, developing new techniques and an entirely new menu for the following season. Adrià has always insisted on the importance of sharing his ideas and has meticulously documented and published his work. Adria influenced chefs around the world — even ones who had never been to elBulli — through that documentation, and thanks to the intense attention the restaurant received while in operation.

elbulli-olive-spheres-eater.jpgelBulli's iconic spherified olives [Photo: Ulterior Epicure/Flickr]

"Ferran is the reason we're talking about this," says the chef José Andrés, who calls Adrià his mentor and greatest influence. "There wouldn't be plagiarism in cooking if he hadn't done what he did." Andrés pinpoints the development — and swiping — of new techniques as the main problem in the cooking community. "We've been frying, making bread, and using tons of techniques and recipes developed decades and centuries ago, and we don't need to precisely credit the people who came up with those things." With the passage of time, according to Andrés and Chang, some contributions to cooking have become canonical.

dufresne-quote2.jpgWylie Dufresne, the chef and owner of the trailblazing restaurant wd-50 on New York's Lower East Side, isn't quite as comfortable with that development. "I used to be up in arms when people would steal the modern stuff when everyone was trying to push the boundaries," he explains, "but as I've gotten older, I've started to think about how fascinating and arbitrary it is that we decided at some point that we didn't need to credit many of the things developed in the past." He describes how "in a way, we're all stealing. There are things we do in this restaurant every day that we don't really know the origins of." But who decides what's canonical and what's not? Going down that road is daunting, to say the least, and Dufresne agrees that it would be difficult to resolve that particular problem.

Journalistic Responsibility and Holding Chefs Accountable

What Dufresne is sure about, though, is the need for journalists and experts to hold chefs and creators accountable. "When I'd notice someone copying and then being praised as having innovated, it always bothered me more that the publication writing about the dish wouldn't point it out," he says. "No one seemed to call the chef and say, 'Do you want to come clean on this?'" He adds: "Dishes are just as personal and laborious as other works of art, yet people get away with copying in cooking far more than they do in other disciplines." Dufresne spoke mainly in the past tense, since he claims that the whole matter used to bug him way more when he was younger. He does acknowledge that the problem is still very much there.

Alex Stupak, who used to work with Dufresne at wd-50, seems to agree with his former boss. On Twitter, back in May, he wrote: "Which is worse? Chefs ripping off other chefs or the writers who do not notice and praise plagiarism? I guess none of this matters anymore."

wd-50-eggs-eater.jpgWylie Dufresne's eggs benedict, which feature deep fried Hollandaise [Photo: Ulterior Epicure]

Not Just The Avant-Garde

raji-quote.jpgDisputes about innovation and copying extend to kitchens few would call avant-gardist or even high-end. In an interview last June, New York chef Alex Raij, who owns several Spanish restaurants throughout the city, said, "I think we are more innovative than people give us credit for... What bothers me is when people get called innovative when they've taken someone else's idea." During that conversation, she argued that an uni panini she made popular at the restaurant El Quinto Pino was later swiped, without attribution, by Boston chef Ken Oringer. Raij also had some words for Miami chef Michelle Bernstein, who in her eyes had taken an egg yolk carpaccio preparation from Bar Mut, in Barcelona, and passed it off as her own. "It's important to be reverential and referential, and connect it to the landscape," the chef said at the time.

Some, however, don't seem as concerned with getting credit for their work. They see it, at least publicly, as flattering. Just last month, Pete Wells again explored the issue of inspiration and plagiarism in cooking when he wrote of the similarities between a dessert at Blanca, in Brooklyn, and one that used to appear on the menu at Dirt Candy, in the East Village. When reached for comment by Wells, Dirt Candy chef and owner Amanda Cohen described being "happy and proud" whenever she sees something from her restaurant pop up elsewhere. "Making dishes is a conversation that chefs are having with each other, and it's always nice to feel like someone's seen what I'm doing," said Cohen.

In that piece, Wells concluded that Katy Peetz, Blanca's pastry chef, had put enough of a spin on the dish to call it her own. Even though she hadn't mentioned Dirt Candy in her explanation, Peetz seemed to be "holding up her end of [the conversation]" just fine, according to Wells.

timeline layout 800px.JPGIn Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, Nathan Myrhvold includes a timeline of innovative dishes from modern chefs, beginning in 1970. [Photo: Modernist Cuisine, LLC]

Distilling Your Influences

If making dishes is a conversation between chefs, as Amanda Cohen says, then the dishes should build on each other and add ideas. Dishes ostensibly need enough original elements so they're not seen as ripoffs. But "originality" is deeply subjective, and that can be problematic for cooks who've been exposed to the works and ways of thinking of other kitchens. Some young chefs have recently been candid about that challenge and the ways they've gone about finding their own voice.

Before opening Relae, in Copenhagen, Christian Puglisi worked at chef René Redzepi's Noma, number one on the World's 50 Best List and perhaps today's leading culinary idea factory. Puglisi says that going into his own restaurant, he knew that many would assume it would be "Noma-lite." To combat that and push his own creativity, Puglisi set rules and prohibited his team from employing certain hallmarks of Redzepi's cooking: "[we] said no wild herbs, no foraging, none of that shit. We've been like teenagers, I often think, in that we want to do everything the opposite way from our parents. That has been very helpful to us, because it's pushed us to find our own way."

Picture 5.pngThe new test kitchen above Noma, where the chefs work on developing new recipes. [Photo: Adam Mörk]

Similarly, Paris' David Toutain, whose progressive cooking at L'Agapé Substance has earned serious acclaim, says that when he started to write his own menu, he couldn't help but come up with ideas very similar to those he learned from his teachers — Aduriz, Veyrat, Passard, to name a few. Toutain was quick to say, "No, no, no, no, no," when asked if he'd found his own voice yet. "That's the point. It takes time," said Toutain.

Credit Where It's Due

Chefs can, of course, call out perceived offenders publicly, but they run the risk of looking petty or resentful. If it does happen at all, no one names names. For example, Chang, Stupak, and Coi's Daniel Patterson have tweeted about the problem, but they don't mention the guilty parties. If Manresa chef David Kinch's observations are any indication, there might be too many to even bother: "I just don't want to be a Noma clone. It's everywhere. You see it in the way people plate, and it's nauseating."

The way things are, it's left to the chefs to figure it out and follow their own moral compasses. Modernist Cuisine author Nathan Myhrvold boils it down to "professional ethics." Andrés serves the spherified olives developed at elBulli, but notes where the dish comes from and speaks about Adrià around the world. "I mention his name so much that [Adrià] tells me it's annoying," he says. Similarly Chang points to footnotes in the texts of Heston Blumenthal and Magnus Nilsson as the kinds of acts that "continue the culinary dialogue." But as PDT bartender Jim Meehan recently pointed out, compared to cocktails texts which often have bibliographies, cookbooks have a long way to go when it comes to citation. "I think that for those of us who are passionate about origins, it's vital to document, cite, and credit," said Meehan. "That's why the [cocktail] books perhaps tend to be more scholarly or at least seem more scholarly than culinary books."

Chang also mentions instances of chefs naming the people responsible for the dish they're replicating or putting a spin on as valuable gestures. When Marco Pierre White put Pierre Koffman's pig's trotters on his menu, he listed it right there on the piece of paper. Nowadays, at 41 Degrees in Barcelona, Albert and Ferran Adrià serve Martín Berasategui's eel and foie gras millefeuille — which some actually claim Joël Robuchon shamelessly made off with at some point — and will print Berasategui's name on the menu you take home with you. The website of three-Michelin-star Quintessence, in Tokyo, devotes a section to Paris chef Pascal Barbot. Recently, Chang credited wd-50 on the menu of his new Toronto restaurant Momofuku Daisho:

chang-dufresne-menu.jpg
At David Chang's Momofuku Daisho in Toronto, he serves a dish by Dufresne and cites wd-50 [Photo: Momofuku]

But Andrés says it shouldn't be a requirement for chefs to list the person responsible for a dish on the menu. "All great chefs come from great teachers," he says. "I owe a lot to a lot of people, but I'd like to think that I've also managed to do some great things on my own. At the end of the day, I try to be honest and celebrate those people whenever I can, which is the important part."

Protecting Recipes

The question of protecting recipes occupies a section of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking in which Nathan Myhrvold describes how chefs don't have many legal recourses to protect their ideas. Myhrvold, who himself holds over 100 patents, observes that "writers own their short stories, photographers own their images, and composers own their songs, even when these works appear on the internet." Chefs, for the most part, don't. Copyright laws don't extend to ingredient lists or the making of dishes.

cantu-quote.jpg"They could try to copyright the plating in the same way an artist could his work, but that's usually not worth the time, effort, or money," says Homaro Cantu, whose science and tech heavy restaurant Moto in Chicago has collaborated with NASA in the past. "Plus, if one of the many components of a dish doesn't qualify as original, the whole thing would be off." Cantu has patented products he's developed, like a "Miracle Berry" that tricks your palate into processing something sweet as savory, but not dishes. Dufresne, for his part, says he "doesn't understand why recipes aren't protectable."

Some restaurants have tried to protect their work by prohibiting photography, but those restrictions are usually ineffective and met with backlash from diners. RJ Cooper, of Washington, DC's Rogue 24, used to have customers sign a contract which strictly prohibited the taking of photos. Even though many chefs see the food photography phenomenon as free PR, Cooper feels that "[people] publish food photos without your consent, which is taking intellectual property away from the restaurant." The blowback was such that he had to let it go, despite his strong feelings on the matter.

michel-bras-gargouillou-eater.jpgMichel Bras' gargouillou, which René Redzepi has called one of the most copied dishes of all time [Photo: Entre Les Bras/Facebook]

Finding The Balance

No dish might be more emblematic of the problem Andrés points out than Michel Bras' iconic gargouillou. That preparation, a simultaneously meticulous and simple showcase of the best the garden has to offer, has influenced chefs for decades. A rendition of it, "Into The Garden," appears on the menu at the two-Michelin-star Manresa, for example, and chef David Kinch has publicly credited Bras as his inspiration. But does every cook who makes vegetables the star of a dish — there are plenty of them these days — need to mention Bras or another naturalist chef at every turn or list their name on the menu? Bringing in a bit of history can be fine, but not everyone is looking for a lesson, much less a bibliography, when they go out to eat. Plus, no one in specific is responsible for setting and enforcing those rules for the culinary community. Unless, as Dufresne notes, journalists fully assume that task.

Adequate attribution of dishes remains a murky topic and is difficult to resolve. The general consensus is that if you have the chance to give a colleague a nod, you probably should. Most of all, don't let yourself get the credit for someone else's innovation. Acknowledging one's forebears and inspiration should be part of the process.

At one point during my conversation with Dufresne, I asked him whether we should be worrying so much about chefs not giving proper credit. "Some might say everyone copies from everyone, and that it's always been that way," I offered. He quickly brought up his celebrated take on eggs benedict, which features deep-fried Hollandaise sauce. "I didn't invent Hollandaise," he said. "But I definitely walked it up the road a little bit."

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