From molten chocolate cake to pork buns and roasted marrow bones, Daniel Duane explores how dishes multiply across menus, and what it means for the chefs who created them.
A few years ago, I told chef David Kinch about a many-course meal I enjoyed in a San Francisco restaurant. There were tiny wild mushrooms poking up from edible soil, wood smoke trapped under glass with seared venison, hot chocolate cake bathed in mist from dry ice. Kinch, who owns the three-Michelin-star restaurant Manresa in Los Gatos sighed, shook his head and said, “Dan, I can tell you where every one of those dishes came from.”
When I recounted this conversation to Daniel Patterson, co-owner of Alta CA, he wasn’t a bit surprised. “I can usually look at a menu and tell where the chef trained and who they admire and what cookbooks they have in their kitchen,” Patterson told me.
I eat out enough to recognize the odd borrowing, like those ubiquitous baked goat cheese salads back when most Northern California restaurants felt like Chez Panisse cover bands, or the roasted marrow bones during the whole-beast craze inspired by British chef Fergus Henderson. I’ve had enough molten chocolate cakes to know they owe a debt to Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s chocolate Valhrona cake, first served at JoJo in New York City in 1987. And I do think of David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar, which opened clear back in 2004, any time I see a new upscale ramen joint or a pork bun food truck.
But I lack the kind of culinary X-ray vision that Kinch, Patterson and other great chefs have—the augmented-reality Google Glasses that let them walk through restaurants and see, dancing around every plate, a long line of earlier dishes, a lineage of inspiration. So I began asking chefs about the iconic dishes that have sparked contemporary menu memes, endlessly copied and reinterpreted. Nobody wanted to confess to borrowing, or point out the borrowings of others, but I quickly assembled a greatest-hits list: Michel Bras’s 1978 Le Gargouillou de Jeunes Légumes, the acknowledged template for both Kinch’s Into the Vegetable Garden and Patterson’s Abstraction of Garden in Early Winter, and, arguably, every other gorgeously elaborate plants-only preparation; Nobu Matsuhisa’s 1987 black cod with miso, which appeared on every Japanese-inflected American menu for decades; and René Redzepi’s 2007 pickled vegetables, trigger for the serious pickling earthquake that still rattles North America.
The harder I pressed chefs for specifics, however, the more I sensed that culinary creativity is changing in ways that chefs find exciting but also unsettling, with the lines between inspiration and imitation now sometimes too blurred to identify. Chef Corey Lee, of the three-Michelin-star restaurant Benu, in San Francisco, says it’s one thing to borrow abstract concepts: His unagi taco, for example, was inspired by the playfulness of his mentor Thomas Keller’s famous salmon cornet, an amuse-bouche modeled after an ice cream cone. But after Lee introduced Benu’s buzzed-about faux–shark’s fin soup, which took him months to develop, he got an email from a young chef who had just opened a restaurant in New York. “It said, ‘Hey, I want to make faux–shark’s fin soup—do you mind sending the recipe?’”
“At first,” Lee recalled, “I was like, Are you kidding? But then I thought, Why not?”
Back when the French classical tradition was more or less intact, copying was precisely the point. Cooking put an emphasis on apprenticeship, mastery of the classics and self-expression through technical refinement. Chefs were taught to replicate, not innovate. According to Traci des Jardins, who trained under French legends like the Troisgros brothers: “As late as the 1980s, we weren’t experimental. We did things the way we were supposed to do them.”
That all changed in the 1990s, when boundary-pushing chefs like Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal made innovation the name of the game. With that emphasis on experimentation came new ways of learning the craft, too. Instead of apprenticing for decades under one or two culinary giants, young cooks now bounce around the globe on a circuit of three-month stages at ultracool restaurants— Noma and Relae in Copenhagen; RyuGin in Tokyo—exposing them to a wider world of inspiration, but also, ironically, virtually guaranteeing that they all acquire similar stylistic influences and résumés. Add to that social media, YouTube cooking tutorials, food television and the open-source ethics of the millennial generation, and it all makes proprietary originality seem so last century.
You might be able to make a dish look like someone else’s, but the real talent is in how good it tastes.”
Chefs also collaborate more than they ever have, through pop-ups, guest chef dinners and worldwide events that take months to orchestrate, such as the Grand Gelinaz! Shuffle, in which 40 famous chefs swap kitchens for a night like culinary foreign exchange students. They come without their staff, special ingredients or recipes, make do with what they find, and put on lavish meals for diners who buy advance tickets without any idea who will be cooking for them.
And then there’s Cook It Raw, the annual meetup where prominent chefs fly off somewhere remote—Alberta, the Yucatan—to have fun with local ingredients and cook together. Patterson has been a regular for years: Back in 2010, in Lapland with Redzepi, Albert Adrià, David Chang and others, he cooked beets next to an open fire for six hours, scraped off the char, and sauced them with juniper, blueberries and (of course) reindeer blood.
“A few months later, I went to Albert’s place in Barcelona,” Patterson told me, “and he brought out some long-cooked pepper thing and said, ‘I was really inspired by your beet dish.’ Really, I could have packed it in at that point.” It turned out that Redzepi also responded to Patterson’s beets—he developed his own variation with carrots cooked so low and slow they became almost like fruit leather.
“That’s the positive aspect, where there’s a recognition of inspiration and it builds community,” Patterson said. “That’s the conversation that creative people have.”
But Patterson was less enthused about the subsequent appearance of slow-cooked vegetable leathers in other restaurants, without attribution. “These things tend to travel downstream,” he said, “and let’s just say there’s a breakdown of honesty.”
Given the sheer number of people posting and viewing images of food these days, Instagram can take some of the blame. Redzepi alone has over 370,000 Instagram followers, which goes a long way toward explaining the now global diaspora of hard-core pickling and handmade ceramic plates. Multiply those numbers by the many thousands of other chefs and diners obsessively chronicling their every meal, and it’s no wonder that culinary creativity feels so crowd-sourced these days.
Chefs at casual joints are just as susceptible to imitation. Chris Kronner, of Oakland’s terrific Kronnerburger, recalls an Instagram user tagging him in a photo. “I took a look, and it was this L.A. restaurant selling a carbon copy of my fried-chicken sandwich with gluten-free onion rings. But, hey, I published my onion ring recipe on Vice, so I can’t exactly get mad.”
That relaxed mentality among chefs is becoming the norm. Because, let’s be honest, you might be able to make a dish look like someone else’s, but the real talent is in how good it tastes. As des Jardins puts it, “If somebody said, ‘I’m going to steal all your recipes and open a restaurant down the street,’ I’d say, ‘Good luck! It’s not easy.’”
At In Situ, his new project inside the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Corey Lee takes almost the opposite tack. Conceived as a kind of culinary art gallery, it curates the signature dishes of great chefs just as the rest of the museum curates paintings and sculptures. Lee gathered the recipe collection in part by traveling to restaurants and learning to execute each chef’s vision perfectly. Now he rotates those works through the menu, which resembles a gallery guide, with every dish listed with the place and date of its origin, as in, “Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart, Massimo Bottura, Osteria Francescana, Modena, 2014.”
“That puts a stamp on a dish and tells you when it was first conceived,” said Lee. “So if you think about something like Redzepi’s Wood Sorrel & Sheep’s Milk Yogurt”—Noma, Copenhagen, 2005—“and if you’ve seen iterations in other places, it helps you see how truly innovative and original René’s thinking was. You get a sense of who the influencers really are.”
San Francisco–based writer Daniel Duane is an F&W contributing editor and the author of How to Cook Like a Man: A Memoir of Cookbook Obsession.