Chefs Insist Imitation of Their Dishes is the Sincerest Form of Flattery

April 04 2012 - 11:27 AM

Buff-wing-396x590After dining at three newly-opened restaurants recently, I saw variations of a similar pasta dish on all three menus. At RPM Italian, it was a squid ink spaghetti with king crab and peppers. At Balena, I saw a squid ink taglione with sea urchin, crab, and chile. At Nellcôte, it took the form of a squid ink strozzapreti with lobster and fresno chiles. Was this really just a coincidence? I wondered whether chefs notice their dishes repeated on menus, and how they react to it. Can there ever be a sense of ownership over a dish, or is there truly no original idea in cooking? I found that most chefs welcome the sharing of inspiration and even recipes, and expect to see their ideas show up on other restaurants' plates.

"You really can't copyright a dish. If you could we would all be paying royalties to Escoffier and the rest," says Susan Goss, chef and of West Town Tavern, and author of the restaurant's cookbook. "If I gave five Chicago chefs a recipe from my cookbook and asked them all to make it I would have five different dishes."

Other chefs agree that there is a certain culinary canon that still provides the basics for restaurant cooking, and that mother sauces, certain flavor combinations, and technical preparations still provide the basis for what we see on menus today.

"Classics are classics," says Carrie Nahabedian, chef and owner of NAHA. "But every chef needs to add their talent to make it their own interpretation."

NAHA's pastry chef, Craig Harzewski, adds that with pastry, technology often drives what diners see on the menu. "For example, [when] the flexipan dome mold [came out], it appeared that everyone had a chocolate dome cake. Or [with] the Pacojet, many places began an ice cream program based off of that. It is kind of cool to see what a number of chefs do with the same item, and how their final plates differ or are the same."

On the other hand, some chefs do create unique dishes that become their "signatures." When Philip Foss, now chef and owner of EL Ideas, first moved to Chicago, he posted an entry on his blog detailing his spin on a buffalo chicken wing (pictured above). An editor from a popular restaurant blog saw this, and wrote his own post implying that Foss must have lifted the idea from Graham Elliot, who is known for his permutations on the "buffalo" theme.

"Despite the stark differences between our offerings, I was both insulted and embarrassed and left comments reflecting that I was not inspired by his dish and that nobody really had a patent on the theme anyhow," Foss says. "There have been times I have taken inspiration from other chefs and I always try and acknowledge that. In regards to someone taking my ideas, imitation is the greatest form of flattery."

That's the sort of "shrug and be flattered" attitutude that also reigns at Edzo's Burger Shop, where owner Eddie Lakin says he was one of the first in Chicago to make a Nutella milkshake. "After Edzo's opened, I saw a Nutella milkshake on about six different places' menus. I had never seen anyone doing it before, but hey, I can't really copyright the idea of dropping a blob of Nutella into some ice cream and blending it up, now can I?" says Lakin. Still, he's not too bothered by it. "There are very few new ideas in the world of restaurants, so it boils down to execution, service, and surroundings."

Ultimately, most chefs agree that they feel inspired, not threatened, by the give-and-take of Chicago's restaurant scene. The conversations that they have and the ideas they share keep their skills sharp and their minds flexible.

"I hope, as a chef community, we can help each other learn and grow as cooks," says Craig Fass, chef and owner of The Bad Apple. "For example, I loved the panzanella salad from Longman & Eagle so much that I tried a different version for The Bad Apple. It, however turned out to be a disaster because my guys hated to cook the salad. However, Longle gman & Eadidn't invent the salad, they just made it perfectly. I hope the cooks over there don't think I was poaching their items. It was more of an homage."

–Kate Bernot