Who Gets to Take Credit for Recipes?
My friend Andrew Friedman had me on his podcast, Andrew Talks to Chefs, to talk with him and another food writer, Alicia Kennedy, about a question that is relatively new to me and that I am still turning over in my head: Who owns a recipe?
Not long ago, even asking that question would have prompted confusion in most restaurant kitchens. For a lot of people, the restaurant and its chef owns each recipe—full stop. As a cook, you come up with an idea, and present it to your chef, get feedback, tweak the dish, repeat that cycle for a few rounds, and then finally get to see your dish on the specials list or actual menu. You consider yourself lucky to work for a chef who allows you to contribute and be creative; I was thrilled the couple of times I was able to pull it off. It never occurred to me to ask for credit; my chefs and other cooks had contributed a lot to each dish, which was created with the chef's style in mind anyway.
But that was a long time ago, and even if I was talking about my experiences from a year or two ago, it feels like everything has changed.
The conversation was sparked by allegations that Sqirl Chef/Owner Jessica Koslow didn’t credit her cooks when they came up with dishes that made it onto her menu and in her cookbook (although Koslow notes that she gave credit in her book’s recipe headnotes and on social media).
I have to admit that I’m still working through where I stand on this. One of the dishes Koslow is accused of taking credit for is the restaurant’s jam-stuffed French toast. Her former chef de cuisine says she created the dish, after having been inspired by a technique she learned while working at another restaurant in Las Vegas. My initial reaction was that if the CDC should have been credited, shouldn't her chef in Las Vegas also get a mention for whatever inspiration she took there? And second: I made stuffed French toast when I was a breakfast cook in the mid-90s, using a recipe I (barely) adapted from The Silver Palate cookbook. I would have cited the book had anyone asked, but not a lot of people were debating the provenance of their hotel breakfast back then. But regardless, stuffed French toast has been around for a minute. So who deserves credit for it? I don't know.
The debate is intertwined with how we think about inspiration and where it comes from, a topic I've talked about with chefs a lot. In his book, Steal Like An Artist, Austin Kleon writes that "Nothing is original. All creative work builds on what came before." He later advises that, "If we're free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it." I've always subscribed to this notion; I think a lot of ideas are just out there, and they come to us at different times and in different ways, depending on what else we've experienced. I've thought about this a lot as a cookbook author. I gave credit for the inspiration behind various recipes in the headnotes, but still consider the recipes to be mine. That said, they came about because of music I listened to, something my mother cooked for me once, a dish I saw on Instagram, a sunset, desperation ... anything, really. I've even made pretty good food inspired by self-loathing.
But, as we revisit a lot of ideas of how restaurants should operate, it's worth considering how to give cooks more credit. While I don’t expect restaurant chefs to start listing all the cooks who contribute to each dish on the menu (or, God help us, in the verbal menu tour: "The lettuce in this salad is from Smith Farms, and Jeff, Anupi and Carlos worked to create the dressing, while Carla came up with the idea for slicing the radishes in half-moons"), I have a tremendous amount of respect for leaders who share the spotlight and credit with their team. There are some great examples out there of people who do it well, but the standout to me is the Atlanta chef Kevin Gillespie, who built his restaurant Gunshow around encouraging cooks to workshop new dishes and even has them present the dishes to the tables (it's a really cool idea; check out my interview with him about it).
Something else comes to mind the more I think about this topic: A few years ago, I taught a class on food media at Kendall College, one of the culinary schools in Chicago. Before the semester started, the dean told me to start my first class by telling the students about my work experience in both restaurants and magazines, tell them about events where I’d been invited to give a talk, awards I had won. I thought it really weird and kind of arrogant to do that, but he explained that the younger generation doesn’t have an automatic respect for authority, and I needed to prove myself for them to listen to me and focus on the class. That was kind of crazy to take in, but the erosion of expected respect has been coming for a long time. Richard Nixon is said to have broken the media’s reverence for the president during Watergate (and wow – we’ve been on a slippery slope there ever since). More recently, celebrities tarnished their golden perches, complaining about sheltering-in-place on their huge properties and almost worse, singing "Imagine" to the rest of us to make us feel better about being holed up in our much smaller homes. Maybe that automatic respect for the chef/owner has gone away as well—especially as restaurant workers demand better working conditions.
Here's the link to the podcast; it's worth a listen. I'm going to keep thinking through this topic, but would love to hear what you think in the comments below.