During his time at Thomas Keller’s famed three-Michelin-starred restaurant The French Laundry, a young Grant Achatz created a cantaloupe and caviar gelee dish for its tasting menu.
As Achatz recounts on an episode of Netflix’s Chef ’s Table docuseries, Keller asked him: “If this dish goes on the menu, it becomes a French Laundry dish. Are you okay with that?”
The bright-eyed apprentice said yes.
Today, Achatz is a celebrated chef behind his very own temple of gastronomy, Alinea. This time around, it is his turn to sound the same warning to one of his sous chefs. The man in question happily agrees to let the restaurant claim ownership of the dish, and the said creation – an edible helium balloon – is now one of the restaurant’s signatures. It no doubt helped the restaurant win its coveted trio of Michelin stars.
As far as accolades go, the most prestigious award in the culinary industry is awarded to restaurants, rather than chefs. The Michelin Guide assesses a restaurant in five areas: quality of the products, mastery of flavour and cooking techniques, personality of the chef in his cuisine, value for money, and consistency of the restaurant between visits.
When conferring stars on deserving restaurants, the Michelin Guide states that the “decoration, service and comfort levels have no bearing on the award.”
With the cuisine, rather than the service or ambience, at the centre of the judging criteria, it begs the question of why chefs – the masterminds behind the products on the plate – are not awarded stars to their name.
Michael Ellis, international director of the Michelin Guides, offers this insight: “The cooking is the result of a team effort – the chef is the boss in the kitchen, but usually he or she oversees a number of people. Hence, the stars are awarded to restaurants rather than chefs.”
These sentiments are echoed by Paul Longworth, chef-partner of one-Michelin-starred Rhubarb Le Restaurant: “A good restaurant cannot operate without collective effort from the entire team, so the star belongs to all of them.”
Keeping in mind that a chef’s individuality is one of the criteria sought by the Michelin Guide, Ellis adds: “A change of chef is always taken into consideration for re-inspections. We need to test the restaurant after any chef change.”
SIGNATURE DISHES AS AN EXTENSION OF THE CHEF
If the authorship of a dish belongs to the culinary team of the restaurant, why do we see head chefs bringing their signature dishes with them when they move to another establishment?
Take, for example, French chef Julien Royer, the former chef de cuisine of Jaan, who carried his famed smoked organic egg dish to Odette, where he presides as chef and co-owner. Notably, Jaan has continued to serve the dish – albeit presented differently – under the stewardship of current chef de cuisine Kirk Westaway, who believes that the dish definitely belongs to the chef. “If a chef wishes to take it to new locations, I believe the dish brings with it a level of comfort for the chef and the customers testing the new restaurant.” Royer declined to comment on the issue.
Local chef Sebastian Ng, formerly of Restaurant Ember, has also brought over signatures such as his Chilean sea bass with bacon ragout, to his new restaurant, Venue by Sebastian. However, in Ng’s case, his former restaurant is now shuttered.
“I would have had reservations in bringing over the old signature dishes if Restaurant Ember was still in operation,” says Ng, despite feeling a sense of ownership over the dishes in question as the menu at Restaurant Ember formed part of his identity.
He adds: “But when I was working on the menu for Venue, Restaurant Ember had already gone through a revamp and an overhaul of its menu.”
CULTURE OF SHARING
While chefs themselves strive to create unique dishes that reflect their identity, the culinary circle is built on a culture of collaboration.
Within their kitchens, chefs are constantly talking to their team as they research and develop new dishes, thus making it much trickier to ascribe one individual as its architect. It is thus easier – and more accurate – to have the restaurant’s name on the dish.
“I genuinely think it’s enough for customers to know the restaurant name because, even though an idea could be mine, there is a whole team behind me executing it through every single service,” says chef Rishi Naleendra of one-Michelin-starred Cheek by Jowl.
“My team always has an input into what we do. We have even put a few dishes by my staff on the menu.”
Similarly, it’s not uncommon for chefs to share recipes publicly. Celebrated pastry chef Janice Wong, for example, does not view recipe replication negatively.
“Patrons have copied our dishes exactly, but with a different colour,” says the chef-owner of 2am:dessertbar. “We see this as an encouragement as chefs frequently take inspiration from social platforms these days.”
However, for other chefs, it’s natural to feel protective over a dish they’ve invested time in creating. Longworth jokes: “Great recipes take time to develop and, to be honest, if something took me a considerable amount of effort to perfect, I wouldn’t be telling friends the recipe too quickly!”
It’s hard to blame a chef for safeguarding his creations, especially when there have been cases of unexpected mimicry.
Longworth recalls an incident where he served his restaurant’s signatures to a group of industry colleagues, only to find a near-identical version of his foie gras dish surfacing on one of their menus.
“That dish is extremely distinctive, and given the impeccable timing, one could reasonably infer that it wasn’t pure coincidence,” says the chef. “I guess imitation is the greatest form of flattery, right?”
This mentality seems to be mirrored by many other chefs. “I think seeing my dish on someone else’s menu is an acknowledgment that my food is good, and they want to do something similar because they know people will like it,” says Ng.
THE SWEET SPOT
As chefs are unable to patent a recipe as intellectual property, it’s hard to prevent popular dishes from being reproduced in kitchens across the island. Moreover, if restaurants do not implement contractual restraints – such as non-disclosure or non-compete clauses, when chefs move on to a new restaurant – both chef and establishment are technically free to continue serving the dish in question.
Despite having a few disheartening run-ins with imitators, Rishi is swift to decline even a theoretical discussion on patenting signature dishes. “This is an industry
which is about people, which is made out of people. It’s all about respect, hospitality and care,” the chef affirms. “I’d rather everyone respect each other’s work and be ethical about what they do, rather than turn to the legal system.”
The question of ethics is a can of worms, but the idea of respect should be considered. A quick reading of Rhubarb Le Restaurant’s menu would inform diners that their pigeon dish is served with “grape a la Aussignac” – a reference to Pascal Aussignac, whom Longworth worked for during his stint at Club Gascon in London, and his restaurant’s signature sugar-and-nuts-coated grapes.
By publicly acknowledging the inspiration for his dish, Longworth gives due credit to the original creator while also making the creation his own. While provenance is an important part of visual arts, it is often overlooked in the culinary arts. Besides giving dishes an intriguing backstory, it’s also a way to acknowledge and accord necessary references to these edible creations, and perhaps the compromise needed in this debate.
OWNERSHIP IN THE CULINARY WORLD
Is imitation the highest form of flattery? Chefs weigh in.
PHOTO OF RISHI NALEENDRA Tan Wei Te