Hands Off My Chemistry Set

Can a chef’s creations be copyrighted? Picking up on a debate that started on eGullet in March, Food & Wine writer Pete Wells skims through the controversy in the November issue.

Bemused by the copyright mark and “patent pending” declaration on a sheet of edible cotton-candy-flavored paper served at Moto in Chicago, Wells contacts Homaro Cantu, Moto’s resident mad genius, to discover the story behind the fine print. But what starts as a meander through the ins and outs of intellectual-property law (and the possible uses of edible paper by emergency-relief organizations like the Red Cross) heats up halfway through with the arrival of the smoking gun—or rather, the smoking cinnamon sticks that turned up, to great acclaim, as part of a poached-squab dish on the menu at Australian restaurant Interlude. Only problem was, the dish was an almost perfect copy of the same item from Alinea in Chicago, where Interlude’s chef Robin Wickins had done a weeklong stage (unpaid apprenticeship), before the squab showed up on his menu in Sydney.

If the yes-it-can/no-it-can’t debate on Chowhound is to be believed, no one knows exactly what can and can’t be copyrighted when it comes to recipes. According to a quote cited from the U.S. Copyright Office, recipe formulas and ingredients lists are not subject to copyright protection, but the literary expression—that is, the exact wording of the method used to put a dish together, or a written description of it—of such a recipe can be. Hence the “paraphrase” rule on both Chowhound and eGullet, where readers are allowed to post recipes culled from cookbooks, as long as they transcribe them in their own words.

But what about the dishes themselves? No chef who puts a trendy pizza on her menu is going to be busted for aping Wolfgang Puck, who got the whole duck-breast-pizza thing going back at Spago in the ‘80s. But as the cooking in a certain sphere of high-end avant-garde restaurants becomes less like everyday food prep and more like chemistry, can a jealous guarding of these top-secret formulas be far behind?

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