You Can’t Copyright a Recipe, But There Are Still Some Rules
When Kentucky-based chef Samantha Fore of TukTuk Sri Lankan Bites found out that her recipe for Tomato Curry Pie was the cover of the August issue of Food & Wine, her heart nearly exploded with pride. The dish is a take on a classic Southern recipe, enhanced with Sri Lankan ingredients and techniques. It glowed on the cover, with a bright turmeric and black-pepper crust, filled with cheese, topped with vine-ripe tomatoes and garnished with tamarind-enhanced sautéed onions that bring the pie to a new place while still landing in the tradition and comfort of the original.
It was the ideal choice for Food & Wine to celebrate an article within that issue about the Brown in the South series of dinners, and the chefs who had committed to unique reflections on Southern food enriched with their Southeast Asian heritages. The dinners have been popping up all over the country to raise money for the Southern Foodways Alliance, and to raise awareness of a population in the American South that has been integral to its foodways.
Fore is particularly proud of the pie and worked tirelessly on the recipe to make it accessible for home cooks. As any social-media savvy chef would, she put an alert on her phone for “tomato curry pie” so that as people around the country made their own versions, she could track its journey like any proud parent. She knew that as it appeared on other people’s social media feeds, she would be able to repost share, and hopefully help to grow her own followings by engaging with people who were cooking her food. The recipe is especially Insta-worthy, and had landed on the stands in the heart of tomato season, so there were plenty of pictures to like and people to connect with. So, when she got an alert for a Facebook post mentioning the pie, she was eager to engage with what she assumed was another satisfied cook.
The post, from a coffeehouse and café in Georgia called 4am Roasters, had a picture of their version of the pie, and used the headnotes from the Food & Wine recipe to describe the dish, adding a shout-out to their tomato purveyor, and mentioned how excited they were to have finally made this dish, and to make it available to their customers. “Pre-order yours now for $18/pie.”
It was the kind of mention any chef would love to see. She had inspired another chef somewhere to not just cook their recipe, but to love it enough to want to share it with their customers. Many chefs who connect this way end up doing pop-up events together, trading restaurants for a night, and at the least, send customers to eat at each other’s restaurants when they ask for recommendations. It is one of the benefits of the online connections we all share. There was only one problem. Nowhere in the post was the recipe credited to Fore. The article was not mentioned, and it appeared, to anyone who would not have known, that the restaurant was not only selling the pie but doing so in a manner that implied that they had created the recipe themselves.
“The initial post wasn’t much of a shock until I realized they were selling it as their own creation,” Fore said. “There are spots that will attribute their menu riffs on dishes, and I feel like that’s the least people can do.”
Fore took this initial shock at having been left out of the post in stride and eventually, after some thought, posted a cheeky poke at them on their post, essentially a clear prompt to provide proper credit.
“I definitely hesitated. This sort of thing is uncharted territory for me. I have a recipe that I worked on for a while, and I totally understand that recipes can’t be copywritten, but it’s not like I waved a magic wand to make that recipe appear. The major issue I had was selling it for $18 and not letting people understand that it was not their creation. I’m not of the mindset to go after every person on the internet. I want the recipe to go far and wide. If you’re profiting off my work without any attribution? There’s something gross about that.”
This is where it went a bit sideways.
4am responded to Fore on the post that it was not her recipe, but rather a recipe from Asha Gomez, from her cookbook My Two Souths. Gomez, another Brown in the South-affiliated chef who is also represented in the Food & Wine story, had recently been in the restaurant for an event. Gomez does, in fact, have her version of a tomato pie on the cover of her cookbook, but it is not Fore’s recipe, and the differences would be clear to anyone who looks at both recipes side-by-side. Fore then posted in reply the actual article, which showed the headnotes that 4am had used word-for-word in their post, and called them out. She also put a post on her own Facebook page with screenshots of the exchange, shocked that the response had been to deny her purposefully, and then to credit her work to one of her friends. This post sent Fore’s pals to the original, where they started commenting on the recipe being Fore’s, and taking 4am to task not only for not crediting her, but also, not crediting Gomez, if they truly thought that is whose recipe they were using.
“I think the situation escalated more initially than I wanted,” says Fore. “The fact that they tried to educate me on my own recipe and attribute it to a friend and mentor was the straw that broke my cool on the whole situation. I appreciated responsiveness, but not a snide talk-down on work I know is mine.”
Later that day, 4am apologized both on their own post and on Fore’s, and changed the original post to properly credit her.
“I am totally to blame on all of this,” says 4am owner Shane Galloway. “Some of it was confusion in a hurry to get something up before lunch, some of it was me not paying attention. I was trying to say that it was a recipe that our chef Jason had wanted to make for a long time, and I was excited to try it. He'd been showing me the picture on Asha's book for a long time saying he was going to make it. When I asked him to describe it to me, he handed me the magazine bent open to the article. I assumed it was someone talking about Asha's recipe but didn't look into it any further. I won't do that again! I try to be very transparent and give credit. This was a total cluster on my part. It's the first time and it will be the last.”
This isn’t uncommon in a situation like this, where a chef has total autonomy in the kitchen, but another manager is responsible for marketing and social media. Every cook is inspired by other cooks, whether it is eating at their restaurants, reading their cookbooks, following them on social media or reading about their work in magazines. And to Fore’s point, you can’t copyright a recipe
The experience was a teachable moment for all involved.
“Attribution is nice, but even better, is a great tool for social media,” Fore says. “We can work together to signal boost or even promote their business for making a great version of the recipe—a win-win situation since our audiences could expand. I love seeing people make a recipe I worked on; I love watching my recipe grow legs and go around the country. Honestly, had they approached me ahead of time or even attributed it at all, I probably would have shared it as a place you could get the final product. I love supporting small businesses, but ultimately, I have to support myself too, and for that to be a viable option I’ve got to keep an eye on my work.”
Galloway agrees. “The response came immediately after I told Jason what was going on and he set me straight about where it came from. There was no thinking about it; I just did my best to fix what I had messed up as soon as I knew it. I told everyone at the shop what I did and asked them to not do the same thing. When we have something like this again, I will make sure everyone who has contributed gets credit. I am really happy to do it and know what to look for now and what questions to ask.”
The incident can seem a bit isolated. Had Fore not put on the alert, chances are that no one ever would have known. 4am is a small community-based business, not a nationwide chain. But it is a lesson in how connected we all are, and how much the industry needs to work to ensure we are supporting each other properly.
So, what can be learned more broadly here? The takeaways are pretty simple.
If you are a chef operating outside the logical business range of a chef who has created a recipe you want to adapt for your customers, be sure that all internal conversations, marketing and social media properly credit the originator of the recipe. It is great to reach out to the chef who developed the recipe for a blessing if you can, but at the very least, you have to ensure that they get proper credit in all printed, posted, and verbal descriptions.
If you are a chef operating in the same community as the chef who developed the recipe in question, reach out to see if a collaboration is possible, or find another recipe. It is not okay to cannibalize a colleague’s local market. But you might find opportunities for your businesses to support each other and broaden visibility and build audience together.
If you are an owner or manager in charge of marketing and social media, and the chef is asking you to promote a new dish, ask about the origins of the dish before creating materials. Be clear about how you want to work from a place of transparency and being a good culinary citizen, and remind them that they would want the same consideration for a dish they had developed.
If you falter, own up and fix it. But don’t do this knee-jerk, be sure to know that your response is accurate. The situation here escalated not because of the original post, but because in responding, Galloway assumed the thread of events and did not take the time to clarify internally before posting a response. A quick conversation with the chef would have made the situation clear, and the initial response would have been appropriate and factual.
If you are a recipe developer, don’t shy away from asking someone to correct any post that does not properly credit you, as long as you have the ability to back up the origin of the dish. “It’s always useful to try to go in politely, but always, always, always have concrete receipts before going all-in on call outs,” says Fore, who acknowledges that 4am tried to make it right, and focuses more on the positive response and support she got from friends and colleagues.
And as a small business owner, never hesitate to do the right thing, even if it is a bit embarrassing in the moment.
“We're going to mess up,” Galloway says. “Apologize, fix it, learn from it, do better next time.”