Even the most celebrated chefs have help from other people when they're developing recipes, but those names are rarely seen by the dining and cooking public.

By Mari Uyehara
July 31, 2020
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Every so often, accusations of plagiarism rip through the food industry and tumble out into public view. In 2008, Rebecca Charles, who introduced the lobster-roll restaurant to New York with Pearl Oyster Bar, sued her old sous chef Ed MacFarland for stealing the concept of her restaurant with the opening of Ed’s Lobster Bar, down to her mother’s recipe for a Caesar salad made with English-muffin croutons and a coddled egg. Back in 2012, Food Network Dessert First host Anne Thornton reportedly lost her show after the network discovered multiple instances of her copying other recipes in ways that were too close for comfort. Cookbook author Paula Wolfert told the Montreal Gazette that theft of her recipes, without crediting her stories, was rampant until she sued about 25 years ago. But legal recourse is rare. For the most part, restaurant chefs snark about dish-stealing by chefs at other restaurants or large corporations—or at least not acknowledging inspirations—but little more.

More recently, amid accusations of moldy jams at Los Angeles’s Sqirl restaurant, owner Jessica Koslow also had to fend off a different kind of allegation: some former chefs at the restaurant accused Koslow of taking sole credit for recipes that they created. As former pastry chef Elise Fields told Eater, Koslow neglected to give her staff “any credit for the popularity of the sorrel rice bowl, or literally anything else that’s ever taken off on that menu.”

Koslow, for her part, apologized for “mistakes” but claimed that “there is an existing structure in our industry for how restaurants retain the creative recipes and techniques that many chefs contribute to the place during their employment and I will consider my part in this system as we move forward.” (In light of these revelations, Food & Wine changed the attribution of a Sqirl sunchoke hash recipe from Jessica Koslow’s byline to former chef de cuisine Ria Dolly Barbosa with the agreement of both parties.)

The problems at Sqirl, in particular, seemed rooted in some staff members’ perception of her lack of culinary cred and contribution to the restaurant menu from its beginnings. Another Sqirl pastry chef, Sarah Piligian, told Eater: “I literally worked for Jessica for almost three years, and I’ve never seen her cook,” and Balo Orozoco, a former Sqirl catering chef installed at another of her restaurants, Onda, also claimed “she doesn’t cook.” In that way, from these chefs’ viewpoints, the Sqirl blow-up over recipe attribution seems to be more akin to a hypothetical situation in which restaurateurs like Danny Meyer or Maguy Le Coze told a magazine to put their names on a recipe created at one of their restaurants. Still, other unnamed Sqirl chefs told Eater that working at Sqirl was the first time they’d been paid fairly or that the claims that she couldn’t cook were misogynistic.

Recipes are famously difficult to copyright, and restaurant concepts are, too—as Charles found out when she tried to create a legal precedent before settling out of court with MacFarland. While legally, recipes don’t belong to anyone, Wolfert argued that, according to the Author’s Guild, “you can only own the language of a recipe, the written text.” But without hard-and-fast rules, context is key, and it varies between restaurant traditions and those of cookbook authors, with different agreements, implicit or explicit, and many hands involved along the way. Much is muddied because many recipes themselves draw on multiple influences.

“Everything I do is collaborative,” says New York Times food columnist and cookbook author Melissa Clark. “What I do is hire recipe testers. I have a recipe vision. I will type out a recipe. If something is wrong, they change it. Do they get credit at the end of the column? No. But everyone needs to be paid a fair wage, and everyone needs to be on the same page.” Clark does credit her recipe testers in the acknowledgements of her cookbooks.

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Few if any would argue that the cook who suggests adding a thyme garnish deserves credit to a recipe or that every chef who has had input in a dish should have their name directly below the dish on a restaurant menu. At many restaurants, particularly larger ones or those part of sprawling global behemoths, the chef de cuisine’s role is more akin to a speechwriter, who collaborates with a politician to channel their vision, but ultimately knows that part of the deal is that it is the politician, not the speechwriter, who will deliver those words on television and receive the historical attribution. In the ideal scenario, chefs de cuisine, like speechwriters, then parlay that experience into future career moves (see: Obama’s former speechwriter Jon Favreau or any number of political commentators). Holding the title of chef de cuisine or sous chef is, ipso facto, an acknowledgement of that person’s contribution of creative and technical expertise to a restaurant. Still, many chef-owners go beyond that in acknowledging the work of their staffers.

In working with publications, many chef-owners insist that the chefs in their restaurants get credit for the dishes they are largely responsible for creating. Farideh Sadeghin, culinary director for Vice’s Munchies, always asks who she should credit a restaurant recipe to, and very often the chef-owner cites another chef. In more clear-cut cases, when chefs are leading entire segments of a restaurant, they get brand-building treatment through both affiliation with a more famous chef and a byline: chefs de cuisine are often listed at the top of menus or on websites. Rene Redzepi shares a byline with the restaurant’s head of fermentation, David Zilber, on The Noma Guide to Fermentation, as does Yotam Ottolenghi with Helen Goh, the pastry chef, for Sweet: Desserts from London’s Ottolenghi. Chefs like Daniela Soto-Innes at Enrique Olvera’s Cosme, Eunjo Park at David Chang’s Momofuku Kawi, and Maura Kilpatrick and Cassie Piuma at Ana Sortun’s Sarma and Sofra, respectively, have all received promotion from their more-established bosses in the media.

“I had a technique I took from Clio to Alinea to wd~50, and I never felt bitter about that—you leave your influence behind,” says Alex Stupak, now chef-owner of four restaurants in New York City, while conceding that he first became a pastry chef, in part, because it was almost the only name-building role in the kitchen other than chef-owner. “If a cook is developing something within the four walls of a place, then it’s for that place. If it’s not, then you’re making the argument that you’re making research and development for yourself on someone else’s dime.” That all said Stupak also argues that attribution helps increase team pride. “Why wouldn’t you give credit where credit is due?”

And Cal Peternell, who worked for decades at Chez Panisse, and was paid extra to do some recipe testing and development for the restaurant’s cookbooks, sees it similarly. “If the restaurant is paying you and paying for all the ingredients, then the things you’re doing there are the restaurant’s intellectual property,” says Peternell, who was credited in the acknowledgements of cookbooks to which he contributed, but didn’t see a headnote attribution as necessary for a handful of recipes. “Part of working, yeah, I’m giving them some of my intellectual property, but I’m getting a lot back. I was learning and getting better and I was giving back. I certainly feel lucky in that way.” Of course, if a chef doesn’t feel as though they are learning or gaining future opportunities or getting paid extra for recipes beyond the restaurant menu, the exchange on a cook’s salary may feel exploitative.

More commonly, instances of recipe theft tend to involve strangers using recipes without any credit: Chefs mimicking other popular restaurant dishes without acknowledgement, blog aggregators nabbing recipes, or food-media brands that have systematically erased the names of recipe developers. Ben Mims, now a cooking columnist at the Los Angeles Times, recounts that some cooking outlets would  attribute a recipe to the faceless “Test Kitchen” if the developer was not a celebrity chef. He had to fight to get credit for developers in the acknowledgements page. “It’s a bigger deal now than ever,” says Mims. “You’re there to make your name. And giving proper credit, even if it’s just a recipe, can matter in quality of life and the next job you get.”

Tina Ujlaki, former executive food editor at Food & Wine, also pushed to make sure every recipe coming out of the magazine’s test kitchen had its main recipe developer’s name attached, even when it was a printed tag attached to bottlenecks at events. “You should always give credit where credit is due,” says Ujlaki. “There are a lot of mags where you contribute to the pool—it’s work for hire. I never thought that way. Recipes have life. They have a backstory.” An added bonus was that readers built a relationship with those recipe developers, knowing that they were investing time and groceries into a recipe from someone they trusted.

Still, Ujlaki says that the recipe world is rife with copying—Marion Cunningham’s yeast-raised waffles have appeared unattributed all over the place for years—even if there are generally accepted guidelines. “The rule has always been, if you change two ingredients, the recipe is technically yours,” says Ujlaki. “So, if you don’t list salt and pepper, and list ‘seasoning,’ is it yours?” (Other recipe developers go by the theory of changing three things, including both ingredients and techniques.)

In America, in particular, there is a grievous past to who gets their name on a printed recipe, particularly in the South, where enslaved Black men and women brought the ingredients of their homelands and created a new style of cooking with them, while they were often barred from reading and writing. The narrative of Southern food has been so weighted towards white figureheads that two books in the past five years have launched as correctives: Toni Tipton-Martin’s The Jemima Code, chronicling the creativity and technical finesse of Black women in shaping Southern cuisine, and Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene.

“It’s the imperialization of food. The identity politics of food. It’s the colorism of food,” says Lazarus Lynch, a chef, musician, and author of Son of a Southern Chef. “I think it’s part of the fractured history of Black Americans. We weren’t allowed to read. In the Black community, there were house negroes, who were privileged to education and nursing, and field negroes, who were not. Who holds the keys to a certain story or represents a certain ingredient or technique? This is the politics of who can share recipes and who can’t.”

On a granular level, there may not be a great transgression in one chef signing up to sell their creativity to one restaurant, particularly if the chefs are white, educated, and male and have easier access to capital and media buy-in to later build their own brands and restaurants. A larger question may be: Who gets to be a chef-owner? Who gets to be a food columnist? And who does the media seek out for recipes in the first place? As Priya Krishna and Yewande Komolafe point out in Bon Appétit, recipe writing, itself, can get whitewashed when editors assume a white audience—and perhaps that influences who is sought out to represent a culture’s culinary traditions. Stupak recounted, with great frustration, how when he opened his first restaurant in 2010 with his wife Laura Resler, who is Mexican-American and was then the pastry chef, media outlets would credit her dishes to him, despite the couple’s efforts to get her press. “I’m glad things are the way they are now,” he says of the conversations about race and gender in attribution.

When it comes to the chef recipes published in media outlets, Sadeghin acknowledges that sometimes an editor just wants a recipe from one with name recognition—not any recipe from any chef. But “part of our job in food media is to discover talent, not just to give the same people credit all the time,” she says. And that’s essential to a greater responsibility. “Naming recipes with their original titles, and not English descriptions—not dumbing it down for white audiences. It’s our job to teach, not making it always more palatable for audiences.”