On an episode of Chef’s Table, Netflix’s docuseries that follows prominent chefs, Grant Achatz recalls a discussion he had with chef Thomas Keller while he was a young cook at The French Laundry. Achatz had created a cantaloupe and caviar gelee dish for the restaurant’s tasting menu and chef Keller liked it and wanted to add it to the menu.
Before incorporating the dish into the menu Keller asked Achatz a question: “If this dish goes on the menu it becomes a French Laundry dish; are you okay with that?” Achatz said yes, as any young cook would, proud of creating something that his mentor deemed worthy enough of serving in his restaurant. The dish was added to The French Laundry’s tasting menu.
Every single restaurant dish starts as an idea from an executive chef or a line cook, who then works on creating that dish. In most kitchens, dishes don’t reach the menu until line cooks, sous chefs, or the executive chef taste the dish and add their opinions. It’s like editing a rough draft of an article. After everyone weighs in, the original chef or line cook that came up with dish makes changes based on the feedback and the process repeats itself. Once the dish is approved by all parties it’s added to the menu or run as a special for the night. That dish is the final draft, the one that gets published and added to the menu.
Except, in writing, finished articles usually include the name of the writer somewhere on the page. On menus, dishes are not credited to the cook who may have originally came up with the idea — instead they’re all lumped under the executive chef’s name. So, who really owns a dish? And in the case of signature dishes that become an important part of a tasting menu (a la Grant Achatz at The French Laundry) who can claim ownership?