Is There A Right Way To Steal?
The unspoken rules of the fickle inspiration game.
May 9, 2017
Richie Nakano | Collage by ChefsFeed
I recently spoke with a highly-regarded chef about inspiration, creativity, and recipe theft.
A former cook of his was using old recipes on his menu with no attribution or credit, and he wasn't happy about it. It weighed on him for more than the surface reasons I saw, which basically equated to: get your own fucking ideas, dummy. His reasons were much more eloquent, because that's how he is.
“When we take original, artistic and good ideas from someone else, and they have value precisely—and only—because they are original, artistic and good, and we sell them as our own, and we profit from those ideas, that is morally wrong,” he said. “But even worse, it has a chilling effect on the source of those ideas. And eventually those ideas run out, and there is nothing to replace them. There is a phrase for this. It's called the tragedy of the commons. A community collapses when everyone pursues only their own self-interest.”
Are we facing a true tragedy of the commons?
All of this has less to do with draining divine inspiration from the best and brightest minds in our field, and more to do with laziness. Inspiration—in the culinary world, anywhere—is notoriously elusive. As young cooks, we are overwhelmed by its importance, jealous of those who seemingly have it in unlimited supply, and crippled by our own sorry stabs at it. At a certain point, after a dozen failed family meals, constant rejection from your chef, and your culinary hero making jokes on TV about food that you thought was cutting edge and cool, most cooks emerge from the fog of insecurity tougher. We find a way to wrangle our personal intuition, harness it, and focus on the parts of it that we need most, when we need them. When it abandons us, we flail around and despair for a minute, and then start the whole process over again.
And though the line between drawing inspiration and outright stealing can be a tricky line to walk, stealing isn't always bad—as long as you do it the right way. Corey Lee’s In Situ—an entire restaurant as a cover band, recreating the culinary world's masterpieces as museum-worthy expositions, down to every garnish—is one example. It’s a simple game of giving credit where credit is due after putting your own spin on it. Making it an homage, as Lee does.
As recently as 10 years ago, places for cooks to draw inspiration from were limited. You could stage, or read Art Culinaire, or eat out as often as your lack of money allowed. There were highly prized, beat-up copies of the El Bulli books, or Essential Cuisine by Michel Bras. Newer techniques arrived by word of mouth, like myths. There was a feeling that we were all a part of something. We were all figuring out this food thing together. Then came the blogs, and Flickr searches for pictures of the food at The Fat Duck. The world was opening up a bit, but the search for inspiration still took work. The search began to change the way we talked about it.
Fast forward to our current embarrassment of riches, which has led to so much sameness—of dishes and their garnishes and plate ups, of philosophies. Stealing in the culinary world is not new, but maybe it used to be a little more polite. Social media has flipped the culinary world on its head, creating a globalization of plating styles, cooking techniques, and recipe ideas. It’s brought forth notable strides in terms of collaboration and innovation, but it’s not unheard of to muddy the waters with a passive-aggressive accusatory post or two. Differentiating oneself is essential, but fraught with peril.
After a colleague tried my fried chicken steamed buns, he sought me out with questions. He marveled at their texture; just the right amount of chew with a fluffy center and a schmaltzy mouthfeel. I walked him through my recipe, making sure to tell him as much about the aspects of it that had tripped me up as the ones that helped make it ethereal. He thanked me, and a couple days later I saw an Instagram post of the gorgeous looking buns, crediting me. What he didn’t know was that I had piggy-backed my knowledge off of another chef who made them with lamb fat, and we had both at one point referenced a Momofuku recipe. Layers of work, experimentation, collaboration, and communication led to a recipe that I felt proud to pass on.
One of the most common things chefs say to each other after they've tried something they love, is: "I'm going to steal this." This serves as both a compliment and a head's up, but what else is implicitly expected? Attribution. Doesn't have to be a grand statement, but it's gotta be something. Clever, or direct; on social media or on your menu. No, there's no need to list everyone who played a part in the dish's conception in your small plates section, but a good rule of thumb seems to be: let the person know, either in person or in a reverential, social media tagging sort of way—and maybe describe that dish in a subtle way that pays tribute.
If you do nothing, you might just be an asshole.
The fix to all this seems so simple: stop scrolling Instagram incessantly for ideas (where a cook might wind up seeing a well-plated version of a half-baked concept) and just talk to each other again. Art is full of copying of all kinds—hell, hip-hop is built on a foundation of other people’s music, but cut up, chopped, and twisted in a way that can make it greater than the sum of its parts. Credit your peer whose crazy brain came up with the thing that blows wind up your skirt, and use your inspiration to keep edging closer to your original voice.
Otherwise, the vast majority of the #cheflife hashtag will be bald confessions of culinary inadequacy. We’ll look like opportunists masquerading as creators.