Among chefs, sharing’s OK, stealing isn’t
The Dumpling Daughter vs. Dumpling Girl dispute, to my mind, is an all too typical situation in the restaurant business where employees leave to open replicas of places they’ve worked in the past.
You haven’t heard about the dumpling controversy roiling the local restaurant scene? Nadia Liu Spellman, owner of Dumpling Daughter restaurant in Weston, is suing the owners of a new place called Dumpling Girl in Millbury, claiming they swiped her recipes and her business concept. According to the lawsuit filed in US District Court in Boston, the competitors appropriated dozens of menu items from Spellman’s establishment — and even the menu language.
What’s alleged in the suit is culinary plagiarism and it shouldn’t be acceptable. Any employee who leaves an establishment after learning a few good dishes and then allegedly steals a set of family recipes should be taken to task. I’m not talking about emulating a concept or a general style with food but about the simple lifting of recipes from another chef’s kitchen.
In France during the grand age of classical cooking, the standard recipes were all out there for chefs to learn, and what distinguished a restaurant was the skill with which those familiar dishes were executed. The little nuances and flairs that might have been added along with a spectacular presentation is what made them stand out, and those nuances were carefully guarded secrets. Competition among the great restaurants was intense.
In America today, we have a less formal but a no less effective system of cooking our modern American classics. I’m referring to the ubiquitous combinations of ingredients you see on practically every “new American” menu of a certain type.
Those dishes were made popular by a wave of America’s great chefs back in the 1970s and ’80s and today’s chefs make them either because of huge customer demand or because chefs realize the combinations taste terrific and are excited by serving them.
Think “beet salad with whatever” or “tuna tartare with any number of garnishes and flavorings,” to give just two examples. But there is one big difference: Today’s chefs adapt those dishes in their own ways, using different accompaniments, in effect, making their own versions unique.
Chefs are a generous lot and in my experience, they share ideas and concepts with one another all the time. When they go drinking together, after-work conversation invariably turns to who’s cooking what and what techniques are new, fun, and interesting. We often share sources, compare prices, and help each other whenever we can.
My friend Jasper White makes unbelievable lobster stock and years ago I decided I had to know how he makes it so deeply flavored and smoky tasting. So I asked him one night and without hesitation, he told me his secret and I’ve used it ever since. I presume that most of the cooks who worked in my kitchen over the years use his method too, although they might not be aware of who taught it to me. The bottom line is cooks learn from one another, they borrow ideas from each other and that’s a good thing.
But appropriating actual menu items is another story. It is traditionally understood in professional kitchens that you just don’t purloin another chef’s menu recipes and use them as your own. It is a question of simple integrity and having respect for yourself. If you wish to serve another chef’s dish then you must give credit where credit is due.
In France, chefs pay tribute to one another by name. They pay homage to chefs they respect and admire by giving them shout-outs. Younger chefs do it as a way of thanking and paying respect to former mentors or to simply say, “Hey! This chef’s dish is beautiful and delicious and I want to show you how good it tastes!”
And even though much collaboration goes on in kitchens among chefs, sous chefs, pastry chefs, and others, it’s well understood that when you leave that chef’s kitchen to open your own place, you strike out on your own, do food in your own unique style, and even though you learned many great dishes from the chefs you worked for over the years and you may cook in a similar style, you do not cook the exact same dishes. Isn’t the reason you opened your own place, because you believe your cooking has evolved and become unique to you? Most good cooks get to that point in their cooking and it’s an exciting time in a chef’s life.
Chefs are, at their core, teachers and we teach what we know to the next generation for two main reasons. We expect the young cooks in our kitchens to watch, listen, and learn lessons well, to absorb how we do it so that they can cook our food well. Our success depends on it.
Later, it is also understood that when those cooks are ready to strike out on their own they will remember all the experiences they’ve had, both good and bad, and this helps them run their own kitchens. We love watching what they do next and share in their success. What we do not expect, and what is too prevalent today, is to teach those cooks specific recipes we worked hard to develop and then have them open up down the street with those exact same dishes.
The restaurant business is always ripe for the next exciting, cool thing to come along. So chefs, pay tribute to those you learned from properly, but then strike out boldly with your own ideas. If you’re any good, before long we’ll be banging on your door to get a table.