Remember the old aphorism that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery? It's not so pleasant when it happens to you! Or at least that seems to be the thinking of a lot of New York City chefs who've found themselves "ripped off," cuisine-wise. Hailey Eber's piece in the New York Post sheds light on this nasty little food trend, which may have gotten its most recent high-profile acknowledgement when writer Jay McInerney tweeted that West Village restaurant the Marrow's use of uni and bone marrow was "strictly a rip-off of the great @ericripert." (Ripert, who always seems quite charming, tweeted in return that thing your mom always told you: Being copied is a compliment.)
Still, in my mind this leads to a few existential-type cooking questions: Can a combination of two existing ingredients really count as a rip-off? Are we all stealing blatantly from the first person to mix tuna and mayo and slap it on some bread, or the brilliant citizen who mixed peanut butter and jelly? What about peanut butter and honey? What about the hamburger? When it comes to food, we're all copycats, and we can't help it—right? Of course, we're not all professional chefs, with restaurants to run, with investments to protect. Harold Dieterle, the Marrow's chef, defended himself to the Post thusly: "When I create a dish, I naturally think of it as my own," but "I'm well-aware that pairing combinations, even wildly creative ones, are rarely without culinary precedent."
In this creation-happy world, whether the product is food or art or music or literature or technology, it is a rare thing that is not derivative in some way, somehow. I am not sure I've ever met something so pure as to have come into being without the inspiration of anything else already existing on this planet. Still, chefs are crying foul and getting litigious, because their art is their money: "Chefs all over the city are claiming that their ideas are being stolen, and they're taking action," writes Eber—by patenting and trademarking their fare, which David Burke did with his method for dry-aging beef, or by requiring contracts to be signed by employees designating who owns what, in hopes of avoiding any legal problems, or by copyrighting the look of their restaurant (though one can't copyright a recipe itself). When things go awry, there have been lawsuits, like between Pearl Oyster Bar's Rebecca Charles and her former sous chef, Ed MacFarland, who started Ed's Lobster Bar, which she said was just like hers. That case was settled and both restaurants continue to operate.
With legal precedent and, Eber writes, the help of everyone Instagramming and sharing their food and restaurant experiences, there will likely be more such infractions and allegations, and more lawsuits. With copycat chefs come copycat lawsuits.
Still, hearing a chef complain that they were the first to make an uni panini—and therefore, anyone who does it after them has stolen it—may leave a bad taste in the mouth of a customer who only wants food to taste delicious. And can anyone truly be sure they did it first, first in the whole, wide world of everyone cooking throughout history?
Time might be better spent not on the insistence not that one has been first, but on the effort to make one's dish the absolute best.
Image via Shutterstock by Wavebreakmedia.