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?
At Cascina Spinasse, an Italian restaurant in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, chef Stuart Lane makes sure to “give props” to cooks who create dishes but says that they don’t own them. “Sometimes line cooks will throw in their input on an element of a dish, but it’s usually my sous chefs and I that create a complete dish,” he says. “There are so many slight changes that it would be hard to say whose it is in the end.”
At Cascina Spinasse the tajarin al ragu, an egg pasta dish with butter and sage or ragu, has brought the restaurant national acclaim and is considered by many to be the restaurant’s signature dish– but who created it? Lane says that the pasta dish may be a signature for his restaurant and an immovable part of the menu, but no one there can claim ownership because the preparation and flavors are rooted in Italian cuisine.
“Tajarin is a traditional dish in Piemonte and there is a restaurant there that cuts the pasta as fine as we do, so neither the dish nor the preparation is entirely new. But it’s what we are known for,” Lane says.
Is there anything a chef can claim ownership to? Yes, says Lane. Technology and technique. “A chef can claim to be the first to create a technique or an application of an existing technique,” Lane says. Take a look at sous vide cooking. Sous vides have become an immovable part of fine dining kitchens thanks to chef Georges Pralus who explored the technique of cooking in a low-temperature vacuum in the 1960s. He can claim to be the founder of that type of cooking.
Beyond owning a technology or technique, chefs don’t own much else — and that’s the way it should be, Lane says. “It would be like an artist stating they own a painting of a rose no one has ever seen or has built a chair with unique flourish,” he says. “Certainly, they deserve the distinction for the initial creation, but the idea that they own that image or chair in perpetuity is comical and dangerous to creativity and advancement.”
Chefs need to be able to have free reign to use whatever techniques and technology they want to to create the dishes that they imagine. They also need to be able to look at dishes created by other chefs as inspiration.
“We need to take a thing and be able to improve upon it and tweak it and go weird ways to find the next great thing,” Lane says. “But I absolutely feel we should give a nod to the people that were there first and have an appreciation for the evolution of things. If I had a dish called oyster and pearls with tapioca and caviar and tried to play it off as if I was the genius to create it, I should definitely be ridiculed in the press and my restaurant community,” he warns. “But if I somehow changed it to fit what we do at Spinasse and told everyone Thomas Keller inspired me, then I think that’s acceptable and respectful.”
Towards the end of the Achatz episode of Chef’s Table, he talks about how one of his sous chefs created a dish at Alinea, and he gave the chef a warning similar to the one he got from chef Keller. The sous chef laughs and says he wished he had kept it to himself. The dish in question is now one of Alinea’s most famous dishes, the edible helium balloon made of sugar.
For Lane, this transferring of ideas is an important part of cooking and food in general. “If humanity had accepted that a sandwich could be owned, there wouldn’t be all the variations we have today.” Chefs build off of one another’s creations when creating dishes, and that’s okay. Menus are the culmination of a group of cooks and a few chefs; tastes, opinions, and techniques, which can be original or learned from chefs before them.
Make a reservation at Cascina Spinasse.
Korsha Wilson is a Boston-based food writer and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. She has worked in front of the house and back of the house roles in restaurants and spent two years working as a cheese maker for an artisanal mozzarella producer in New England. If you want to see her geek out ask her about french fries, the role of restaurants in modern society or “real” crab cakes — she grew up in Maryland.
Photos courtesy of Spinasse.