Knife's Edge - Richard Blais' Knife's Edge: Bite me
Intellectual property in the kitchen
On the street, you don't copy someone else's style. It doesn't matter if it's freestyle hip-hop lyrics or dope skateboard tricks, you just don't do it. You don't bite someone's style. In the creative culinary world, biting, an even more apropos term for imitating, is just as taboo in the unwritten code of the kitchen. There aren't any copyrights or patents for recipes yet. You can't sue the neighborhood restaurant chef for also serving steak au poivre. But maybe that would be the catalyst to truly get more chefs to cook and think creatively.
I grew up in a somewhat aggressive, urban environment. So maybe I'm overly sensitive to the topic.
But as someone playing in the sandbox of creative cookery, it's important that I stamp out my signature style. The more unique my food is, the more someone can hear a dish or see a dish and say that's Blaisian, the better it is for my food and my brand. And more often than not, people do. Some see liquid nitrogen and handheld smokers and they think Blais. And that's good for me.
Except, that I created neither. Nor was I the first to employ.
This is pretty common in most art forms, I imagine. Creation versus popularization.
The chef you most associate with foam didn't create it or use it first. Same with cilantro coulis. Same with Californian cuisine, etc. So I'm guessing the same could be said of skaters and lyricists, too. It's not the first few who pull off the wicked trick. In fact, usually, it's the one who brings it to the masses.
Once it's popularized, then that's all an artist needs, I guess, to take the street cred.
How many times have you heard a band that sounds like the Beastie Boys? Only later, you come to realize the Beastie Boys themselves sound a bit like Run-DMC. I'm dating myself here. ...
I have been so sensitive to the topic, that if I find a dish of mine is similar in spirit to one I've seen, I'll denote it a "remix." Maybe it's in my blood. I don't think Wylie Dufresne is going to find me on a corner and put a cap in my ass. But that's how I approach it. Inspiration is a funny thing. Sometimes you can't remember exactly how you got there or who helped, but I believe you know if you're completely ripping someone off.
A few years ago, there was a restaurant in Australia that got caught up in a bit of a controversy. The chef staged at a number of restaurants in the U.S., and more than one dish from multiple places showed up on the Australian menu. Written with the same language in the menu descriptions. Plated the exact same way. It was all too obvious, and it was embarrassing. I felt bad for that chef. But also confused as to why he couldn't switch out an ingredient or two? Plate it differently? Or as I mentioned earlier, simply just mention that it's "inspired by" or "in the style of." ...
As I write this I'm flying back from Denver. And, as I often do now that I'm an owner of a hamburger concept, I dined at downtown Denver's hip burger spot. And I ordered a liquid nitrogen, Nutella and burnt marshmallow milk shake. This restaurant has only been open for a few months. In Atlanta, we've been serving the Nutella and burnt marshmallow liquid nitrogen milk shake since we opened, a year and a half ago. The shake arrived exactly as ours does, right down to the pint glass and red straw. Topped with marshmallows and billowing trails of liquid nitrogen vapor. Coincidence?
I didn't invent liquid nitrogen, or its use in food preparation. Shit, chemistry teachers have been making LN2 ice cream in classrooms for 30 years, at least. I didn't create marshmallows. Or Nutella. Or milk shakes. Or straws and pint glasses for that matter.
So I didn't have a problem with any of those items showing up. Except of course ... together, arranged in the exact same way. (Although, honestly, badly executed — trust me, I've sold over 10,000 liquid nitrogen Nutella shakes). Let's just say it wouldn't surprise me to know that someone involved with that place had visited my burger spot. Or at the very least read about the shake.
It irritated me. Maybe in the same way Thomas Keller gets irritated when he sees torchons and butter-poached lobster showing up on menus coast to coast. Dishes, both of which, he popularized. Both of which, although altered, I've served myself. Maybe the same way Heston Blumenthal feels when someone makes bacon ice cream. ... Like me! Although again, I don't serve mine as he does, scrambled, etc.
Maybe I should just be flattered? But instead, it makes me want to load up my smoking gun and do a mother fucking drive-thru drive by.
Richard is not a molecular gastronomist, despite what "Top Chef" fans think - though he does work frequently with thermal circulators, nitrogen tanks and sodium alginate. OK, so maybe he is a molecular gastronomist. Just don't label him.