Culinary “Misappropriation”: legal matters relating to Intellectual Property

bacon pie

This piece of a larger pie called the “Salty Hog Pie” from the Village Inn located in Phoenix, Arizona, but recipes can be found for similar pies on the Internet (Photo by Christina Thompson 2012).

In the world of food, legal matters do exist.  It is important for chefs and cooks to be held liable for their cooking and baking.  People know that there have been court cases relating to this topic, what people do not know is that there has been “culinary misappropriation” by chefs.  This is concerning their cuisine style choices and using other chef’s recipes without the permission of said chef.

One such example of the cuisine style choice was the feud between chef Eddie Huang and writer/editor Francis Lam.  The basic idea is that Francis Lam wrote about an American writer who made a successful Asian restaurant.  Chef Eddie Huang is calling the idea of white American chefs opening restaurants out of their ethnicity “culinary misappropriation.”  How do other chefs feel about this topic?  Chef Margaret Thompson said, “In a way, I can understand his point. We call this “bastardization.” Taking, say an Asian cuisine and having no roots in the culture, you make it how you think Asian, Italian, or whatever should be. It will no longer be authentic. Perhaps then this cuisine should be called fusion.  The argument for purity or misappropriation is no longer substantiated.”

The idea of fusion cuisine and having restaurants comes at a price to some chefs; some ideas for dishes and recipes may already exist for their place of business.  One example where a recipe was “stolen,” was on the show Top Chef: All-Stars.  What happened was that chef Richard Blais shared a recipe/dish idea with chef Mike Isabella, a competing chef on the show.  During a “Quick-fire Challenge,” Mike Isabella used the idea that he and chef Blais were talking about earlier in the day.  Judge and chef Tom Colicchio wrote an article about the episode and the intellectual property issue created by the dish.  In the article, he wrote, “That said, intellectual property laws do not govern dishes. Menu items that appear in one restaurant can be reproduced in another. Even recipes that appear in a published and copyrighted cookbook can be made in any restaurant in the world. In fact, if a chef changed one single ingredient, s/he could even reprint the recipe in his/her own cookbook.”

Autumn Chop Salad

This is an Autumn Chop Salad created by Chef Margaret Thompson for her family in Phoenix, Arizona from a recipe she found on the Internet (Photo by Christina Thompson 2012).

Chef Margaret Thompson has these feelings on the matter, “Well, I think all dishes come from the same recipe and chefs “re-create” them to make them their own.  If the customers do not like the latest spin on the recipe, the chef will go back and tweak it, until people are satisfied.  Lets take a tamale for instance; it is basically masa, lard, and some hot water on the outside, but there are hundreds of combinations of fillings. It all originated with a pork shoulder and went from there.   Each chef added or subtracted from the original recipe. Nobody really owns it.”

Another article presented about the “Blais v. Isabella issue” creates the idea of “Chef Law.”  Chef Law is explained as the following, “Chefs don’t use other chefs recipes.”  This is why there is a perceived problem among chefs.  Should chefs be punished for “culinary misappropriation”?  “If they out and out looked in the person’s recipe file or sat in their restaurant and took notes or pictures and used it in their own restaurant or in a contest or published this, then I say whatever rules/ consequences that apply to plagiarism should apply here,” said chef Thompson.

Each idea presents its own problems and solutions.  Chef Tom Colicchio said it best, “How often have we heard the chefs say that they were making dishes inspired by dishes their grandmothers used to make? In Quickfire Challenges, sometimes the chefs create a new dish on the spot; sometimes they do something inspired by other dishes. Yes, it’s bad form to lift a competing chef’s concept so baldly, and it is rotten for Richard that Mike did so, but Mike still had to execute the concept well. There’s no Intellectual Property law governing such a move, and no Top Chef law against it.”

This idea could be applied to people of other ethnicities opening restaurants outside their own ethnicity as well.  All that matters is how the food tastes to the people eating and enjoying it.

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4 comments

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